The Accidental Guru

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I discovered Malcolm Gladwell by accident … somebody suggested I read his book, The Tipping Point.  Well I did, and I was impressed with his ability to tell a story that connected one to truth.

The Accidental Guru Malcolm Gladwell, says one fan, is "just a thinker." But what a thinker. His provocative ideas are taking the business world by storm. So who is this guy, and what can he teach you about business?

Danielle Sacks, "The Accidental Guru," Fast Company, 90 (January 2005), p. 64.  Photographs by: Ofer Wolberger

"I really like that term ‘momentary autism,’ " a woman says softly into the mike. She is in the back of the Times Square Studios speaking to a room of some 200 people, and more important, Malcolm Gladwell, who’s standing solo onstage. It’s the second day of the fifth annual New Yorker Festival, and Gladwell has just finished a detailed reprise of the seven seconds that led to the infamous 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo. Minutes before, every eye in the room was locked on him as he unspooled the nanodecisions that misled four New York cops into thinking the innocent Guinean immigrant was an armed criminal, resulting in 41 shots, 19 to the chest.

As the woman repeats the phrase to the crowd, you can hear her digesting it as if it has just become a part of her. It is a term Gladwell introduced to the group only moments earlier when describing what happens when our ability to read people’s intentions is paralyzed in high-stress situations. Cocking his hands back in a gunlike position, he had explained in a tone that was part sociologist, part Shakespearean actor, how the cops misread a "terrified" black man for a "terrifying" black man. "They didn’t correctly understand his intentions in that moment, and as a result they completely misinterpreted what that social situation was all about," he said. "I call this kind of failure ‘momentary autism.’ " It’s only one of many neatly packaged catchphrases Gladwell sprinkles throughout his new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown, January 2005). There’s "rapid cognition," "thin-slicing," and the "Warren Harding error," but "momentary autism" is the one that you can quickly imagine this woman using, explaining to her boss why she froze during the new business pitch.

No one in recent memory has slipped into the role of business thought leader as gracefully or influentially as Gladwell. Soon after his first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, 2000), fell into America’s palms, Gladwell made the leap from generalist staff writer at The New Yorker to marketing god. Since then, Gladwell has oscillated between pen and mike, balancing lengthy New Yorker articles with roughly 25 speaking gigs a year, his current going rate some $40,000 per appearance. Last year, he spoke at such highbrow conferences as TED and Pop!Tech and was invited to share his wisdom at companies including Genentech, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Hewlett-Packard. His New Yorker articles have become required reading for B-school students. The Tipping Point spent 28 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and more than two years on Business Week’s, and today there are almost 800,000 copies of Gladwell’s trend-mapping bible in print. Mention his impact, though, and he modestly tries to brush it off — leaning, like any good journalist, on data points to support his argument. "Remember," he points out, "even a book that’s a best-seller still is only read by less than 1% of the American public."

But as the expert in social epidemics knows better than anyone, it’s not how many people you reach, it’s whom you reach. Gladwell and his ideas have reached a tipping point of their own, and evidence of his impact can now be found in all corners of our culture, from politics (Donald Rumsfeld used "tipping point" to describe the war in Iraq) to entertainment (legendary hip-hop group The Roots used it as the title of their latest album).

But nowhere is Gladwell’s influence being felt more than in business. Starbucks’ Howard Schultz publicly attributed his company’s success to the tipping-point phenomenon. The public- relations agency Ketchum created what it infelicitously named an "Influencer Relationship Management" database that emulates Gladwell’s model of connectors, mavens, and salesmen. One tech company even named itself TippingPoint Technologies Inc. The mere mention of his name to creative directors or product developers results in nouns not typically associated with business thinkers: He’s a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud.

Now Gladwell’s back again in bound, written form, this time exploring how first impressions affect decision making. In Blink , he argues that by distilling the first few seconds in which we interact with a person, product, or idea into what is useful information and what is misleading, we can learn to make better decisions. "We talk endlessly about what it means to think about a problem, deliberative thinking and rational thinking," he says. "But we spend very little time talking about this other kind of thinking, which is happening in a split second and which is having a huge impact on real-world situations."

The more Gladwell discusses his next big idea, the more it becomes apparent that his drive is both intellectual and practical. He understands that in order for change to happen, he must package his ideas in a language that people can use to discuss them. The curious journalist who sees himself as nothing more than a "conversation starter" has earned himself a greater responsibility than that. To the business world, he’s now a corporate sage, a 21st-century Peter Drucker.

A Genre of His Own

When you see Malcolm Gladwell for the first time, standing barefoot at the entrance of his breezy Tribeca apartment, you are struck by how young he looks. He’s 41, but seems closer to 30. His slight build is that of a high-school runner, his halo of bushy brown hair evokes Lenny Kravitz. You notice his relaxed stance, his jeans and fitted white T-shirt. If you were going to rely on your own uncanny ability to nail first impressions, you would probably never guess that this is the guy so many people claim has changed the way they do business.

From an early age, Gladwell was drawn to the written word.

Raised in a home with no TV, the youngest son of two published authors was reading the Bible by age 6, and by 16 won a writing competition for a story in which he interviews God. A track star as well, "he was very, very competitive," says his father, Graham, a math professor. "In fact, he was obnoxiously competitive." While he was clearly precocious, Gladwell describes his Canadian upbringing as "very mellow," attributing it to Canadians’ general nonchalance toward the American ideal of success. "There isn’t this big fretting about getting into college," he reflects. "It seemed like a very easy and warm way to grow up, and by comparison, sometimes I feel like things seem to be a lot more at stake in America."

This combination of a laid-back demeanor with an inner ambition has turned out to be his competitive edge in journalism. He got his inauspicious start in high school publishing a ‘zine: Ad Hominem: A Journal of Slander and Critical Opinion . "The rule was, in every article you had to attack somebody," says Gladwell, smirking while noting that only about four issues ever made it to press. While he dabbled in journalism, "it never occurred to me you could actually make a career out of [writing]." So the self-described "slightly lost" University of Toronto grad with a history degree tried breaking into advertising — to no avail — and on a lark landed an editorial gig at the conservative magazine The American Spectator . He was later fired, probably, he says, for his penchant for oversleeping. Gladwell eventually found a home at The Washington Post , where he worked for nine years, migrating from the business beat to science and medicine to New York bureau chief. He gravitated to business writing for the same reason he gravitated to science — because they are about real things that have tangible consequences.

Since joining The New Yorker in 1996 ("It just kind of happened," he says), Gladwell has, as his editor Henry Finder puts it, "essentially invented a genre of story." A "Malcolm Gladwell story" is an idea-driven narrative, one focused on the mundane rather than the bizarre. It takes you on a journey in and out of research through personal, social, and historical moments, transports you to a place you didn’t know you were going to end up, and changes the way you think about an idea. The result is articles such as "The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?" published in 2002 and still circulating today. In it, Gladwell uses psychology and case studies to demolish the "star" talent system that McKinsey & Co. lauded — and its client (the then-bankrupt) Enron epitomized. "They were there looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box," he writes. "It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing."

The business community’s fervor for Gladwell and his work, particularly The Tipping Point , stems from this potent mix of the entertaining with the perspective-shaking. In The Tipping Point , Gladwell reveals a map for how ideas, products, and behavior become contagious within a culture. He traces the word-of-mouth life cycle through the people who start and then accelerate it, whom he dubs "connectors," "mavens," and "salesmen." "I bought books for my whole team, my whole family, and all my friends. I probably bought 30 copies," says Nikki Baker, a marketing analyst at Pepsi who tested the concept for the Aquafina Essentials product launch in 2002. A year after the beverage giant was busy pitching its bottled water to yoga instructors (deemed "key influencers"), its more irreverent competitor, Glaceau (maker of Vitaminwater and Smartwater), began seeding 500 influencers across the country. Matt Kahn, Glaceau’s director of corporate marketing, now makes The Tipping Point required reading for his 35-person marketing team, starting from the point of hire.

Other companies have built entire practices around his ideas. After Simmons Market Research’s team read the book, it created the Tipping Point Segmentation System — syndicated research its clients can use in order to understand how to reach the 12.5% of the U.S. population that falls within Gladwell’s classification of tipping-point segments. One of its clients? Gladwell’s own employer, The New Yorker . Its sales team applies the data to its 950,000-plus subscriber list to help convince advertisers of the magazine’s "influencer" following. Gary Warech, a vice president at Simmons, puts it plainly: "It was a great book. It became the bible, the must-read in business circles. Our guys read it and said, ‘This is great. We can operationalize this and help our clients.’ "

In the Blink of an Eye

"The first thing that started happening was I started getting speeding tickets. . . . I wasn’t driving any faster than I was before, I was just getting pulled over way more."

The impetus for Blink started with Gladwell’s hair (as did his brief splash in the gossip pages when he got "a little too close to some candles" and it ignited during a recent literary event, according to the New York Post’s Page Six). For most of his adult life, he had worn it closely cropped, but several years ago decided to let it grow out into a woolly Afro. "The first thing that started happening was I started getting speeding tickets. . . . I wasn’t driving any faster than I was before, I was just getting pulled over way more." Then there was the day Gladwell was walking around New York and cops surrounded him, mistaking him for a rape suspect. "I’m exactly the same person I was before," recalls Gladwell, who’s half black (his mother, a therapist, is Jamaican). "But I just altered the way someone makes up very superficial, rapid judgments about me." Rather than merely grouse — legitimately enough — about prejudice, Gladwell, who has the tendency to look in on his own life as a case study, was inspired to try to understand what happens beneath the surface of rapidly made decisions. "The idea that something that is extraordinarily harmful in society could be exactly the same in its form as something that’s incredibly useful is really interesting to me."

The "useful" that Gladwell advocates in Blink is the idea that we can teach ourselves to sort through first impressions to "figure out which ones are important and which ones are screwing us up." While most of us would like to think our decision making is the result of rational deliberation, he argues that most of it happens subconsciously in a split second. This process — which Gladwell dubs "rapid cognition" — is where room for both error and insight appears. Many of the snap judgments we make are based on previously formed impressions and are competing with subconscious biases such as emotions and projections. Once we become aware of this, Gladwell argues, we can learn to control rapid cognition by extracting meaning from a "thin slice" of information.

Hiring is one area where we tend to fall into the "dark side" of rapid cognition, says Gladwell. He conducted a study to showcase how we often succumb to what he calls the "Warren Harding error" (Harding being, he says, "one of the worst presidents in American history," who nevertheless radiated "all that was presidential"). Polling about half of the Fortune 500 companies, Gladwell discovered that the vast majority of their CEOs were at least 6 feet tall (only about 14.5% of all American men are 6 feet or taller). What does this say about the way we hire? "We have a sense of what a leader is supposed to look like," he writes. "And that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations."

Similarly dangerous is how first impressions cripple breakthrough ideas and innovation. Gladwell tells the story of furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. in the early 1990s, when it created a new office chair. It was made of plastic and mesh, and while it was created as the "most ergonomically correct chair imaginable," he says, it was just plain ugly. Focus groups, facility managers, and ergonomics experts all despised it. Why? "They said they hated it," writes Gladwell. "But what they really meant was that the chair was so new and unusual that they weren’t used to it."

Gladwell argues that it’s a mistake to rely on the first impressions of customers who are inherently biased against the unfamiliar. Herman Miller execs went against the market research, stuck with their instincts, and created the Aeron, which eventually became the company’s best-selling chair ever. "What once was ugly has become beautiful," he writes. Unless you’re willing to take that kind of leap, he says, you’re condemned to doing knockoff, me-too chairs.

For every Herman Miller "going with your gut" success story, though, there are 100 flops by companies that didn’t listen to customers. Gladwell acknowledges this, but notes, "only by accepting the risk of failure will [a company] ever hit a home run." Relying on the good judgment of your staff, he believes, is the key ingredient for a new kind of decision-making environment, and judgment is what companies should be screening for when hiring. With the right people in place, companies can liberate themselves from their obsession with data-driven decisions.

While the notion is provocative, the road map Blink offers corporate America gets fuzzy from there. (For example, Gladwell never explains how Herman Miller’s execs overcame their concerns about the Aeron’s ugliness.) Gladwell offers much more insight into how those in rapid-decision-making professions (such as firefighters or ER doctors) can slow down a moment or create an environment where spontaneous decision making can take place. That’s less applicable in the white-collar workplace. You can learn how to untrain yourself from making the Warren Harding error, but you’re more or less on your own in rewiring your thinking.

This raises the primary criticism of Gladwell’s work — that he sometimes stretches his colorful stories to make them apply to business issues. And he admits it. "I’m just trying to get people to start a conversation, even if the conversation is, ‘Well, that’s interesting, and that’s not, and that’s sort of bulls — t’ . . . I’m much happier getting criticized for overreaching than I would for being too timid."

In effect, that’s exactly the leap he wants companies like Hewlett-Packard to make. For a company of numbers-driven engineers, steering away from data is downright frightening. "We want to innovate and break out, but we don’t have the instinct for it, really. It scares us a little," says Shirley Bunger, HP’s director of brand innovation. So as part of her mandate to help HP’s 145,000 employees think differently, she brought Gladwell in last June to share the Aeron story.

Bunger recalls watching reactions around the room as Gladwell’s presentation erupted into a vibrant discussion. "There were some people who just had this sense of relief and connection and then other people with this sense of ‘Oh my God, this man is completely challenging everything I believe in,’ " she says. At one point, someone asked Gladwell if he believed in focus groups, and he replied, "I think we would all be better off if focus groups ceased to exist." While this idea and others in Blink aren’t revolutionary, they’re exactly the kind of thing that can spark change. And who better to hear them from, argues Bunger, than Gladwell?

Guru or Scribe?

Companies like HP are still vying to "bring in Gladwell in a way that he could really shape some of our work," says Bunger. Add it all up: a passionate following, companies eager to sign him on as a consultant, some accessibly packaged books, and a knack for addressing a room full of businesspeople with the intimacy of a dinner-party chat. It sounds like the beginning of Malcolm Inc.

"Oh God, no," Gladwell laughs, shielding his hazel eyes with his hands. "I can’t imagine anything more horrible." While he is flattered by how many diverse groups have been drawn to his work and he enjoys speaking to companies, formal consulting would be a breach of his first commitment — journalism — and he claims he’ll never do it. Yet when you ask Bunger, she says Gladwell was very receptive to the idea of a formalized working relationship. And he’s already well entrenched in the pantheon of business prophets: Gladwell is number 27 in Accenture’s ranking of "The Top 50 Business Gurus," above the likes of Jack Welch (34) and Richard Branson (45).

Gladwell’s reluctance to accept the trappings of gurudom reflects his professional DNA: He’s more Peter Drucker than Tom Peters. Like Drucker, he doesn’t come from the usual feeder pools of consulting or academia, and his MO isn’t prescribing the solution but sparking more questions. "I was definitely surprised that he didn’t have all the answers and he didn’t care about it," says Nikki Baker, the marketer at Pepsi who saw Gladwell speak at The New Yorker Festival last October. "He was just a thinker."

She doesn’t mean that as faint praise, of course. But not everyone holds Gladwell’s thinker credentials in such high regard. "When [Gladwell] talks about mavens or connectors, in my neighborhood we call them ‘gossips,’ " says Mario Almonte, who heads the PR practice for Herman Associates, a marketing communications agency. John McGrath, a psychiatrist who’s also the vice chairman of a public-affairs firm, believes marketers became starry-eyed over Gladwell’s first book because he props up the elusive with the quantifiable. "You tend to think, ‘Oh wow, this is really science-based stuff.’ Well, it’s new language, but it’s not science." In fact, the tipping-point concept has been around for decades. The idea was first deeply explored by the economist Thomas Schelling (as Gladwell acknowledges in his original tipping-point article), and marketers have been practicing these ideas without Gladwell’s vocabulary for years. "It’s one of these things that’s kind of obvious but nobody said it," says Henry Mintzberg, the management guru and a Gladwell admirer. "You know, thousands of psychologists spend lifetimes studying these things, and here, one guy kind of waltzes along with a really interesting idea."

"When I was writing The Tipping Point , I realized that in order for people to talk about something . . . they need some way to describe and name things."

Gladwell’s real gift is packaging these ideas in a way that makes them palatable. "[He] acts almost like a translator between the scholarly world and the practical world," says Frank Flynn, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Columbia Business School, who uses many of Gladwell’s articles in his MBA classes. Gladwell deflects the charge that he’s just a savvy marketer of ideas, standing by his earnest intentions to help frame people’s thinking. "When I was writing The Tipping Point , I realized that in order for people to talk about something . . . they need some way to describe and name things," he says. "So I always like to try to come up with simple, sort of catchy ways of capturing complex ideas."

While Gladwell’s newfound role in the business spotlight might be entirely accidental, he sees himself as part of a greater movement. "I feel like there’s been a kind of intellectual awakening in the business world in the past 20 years or so, where people began to realize that there was an enormous amount to be learned from the world outside of business," he says. "I think of myself as one of the many people who are trying to feed that curiosity."

As CEOs and marketers and R&D teams immerse themselves in Gladwell’s new notions of decision making, and as he gears up for a new flurry of speaking gigs, Gladwell admits he hasn’t given much thought to what’s next. "I don’t think that far ahead," he says, his eyebrows perking up like bookends. "Yeah, I don’t really have high expectations about much. It’s a good psychological position to be in, because that means I’m usually delighted by what happens in my life." Whether that means dreaming up more best-sellers or seeing the impact of his ideas playing out in the real world, we can be sure of one thing. He’ll soon be in his favorite un-gurulike pose, lying on his couch with his laptop on his belly, typing away.

Danielle Sacks is a Fast Company reporter/ researcher in New York.

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