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Do You Have the Cultural and Personal Traits Necessary for Innovation?

What does it take to change an industry? What kind of culture creates innovation? And what kind of person can lead real change?

A recent article in The New York Times considers the cultural differences between the US and Europe, and the results that those cultural differences have for tech innovation.

Europe has a long history of world-changing inventions and advances in technology and science. The steam engine. The printing press. Optical lenses used in microscopes and telescopes. The theory of evolution. The theory of relativity.

But in the last 50 years, the US has begun a hotbed of research, innovation and technology. American universities and Silicon Valley are outpacing European centers of innovation.

“In the United States, three of the top 10 companies by market capitalization are technology companies founded in the last half-century: Apple, Microsoft and Google. In Europe, there are none among the top 10,” writes James B. Stewart.

The question is: Why? 

Stewart points to several cultural differences between Europe and the US. The first is that in the tech industry in the US, failure isn’t stigmatized. Indeed, it is celebrated. “Fail fast, fail often is a Silicon Valley mantra, and the freedom to innovate is inextricably linked to the freedom to fail,” writes Stewart. A willingness to face failure allows experimentation and innovation, both personally and culturally.

In Silicon Valley, being fired isn’t unusual or stigmatized. Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple, but he returned. Often employees leave bigger companies to found their own startups, then later the bigger companies might buy those startups. Leaving a company isn’t seen as disloyal in the US and people are often welcomed back after leaving or being fired. Again, this is culture that encourages experimentation.

Lastly, Europeans, in general, have a greater respect for their own history. There is cultural identification with the ways things are. The example that Stewart gives is that Londoners are attached to their Black Cabs in a way that New Yorkers are not attached to their Yellow Taxis. When a company like Uber comes along, Londoners are wary of change, but Americans embrace it.

To innovate, it is best to live in a culture that embraces failure and doesn’t fear change. But what kind of person is most likely to be a change-maker?

Malcolm Gladwell has some ideas about that. Certainly access to money helps. Raw brainpower is good also. But Gladwell suggests that some personality traits that we think of as negative in many circumstances may actually be critical to being a “disrupter.”

"We talk about the importance of technology and knowledge and resources, having the kind of money to make it happen,” Gladwell told an audience at the World Business Forum, “but we don't talk about frame of mind: attitude. The kinds of attitudes that lie behind provocateurs.”

To explain his ideas, Gladwell used Malcolm McLean, an American transport entrepreneur who developed the shipping container, as an example.

McLean was disagreeable. McLean had a successful trucking business that he sold to go into shipping, so people thought he was crazy. He borrowed a lot of money. Longshoremen, who had to load and unload containers, hated the idea of them. Gladwell says that McLean was “completely indifferent to what people said about him … [which is] the first and foundational fact to understand these disrupters. They are what psychologists call disagreeable: they do not require the approval of their peers in order to do what they think is correct.”

McLean had an instinct to reframe problems. He thought that a detachable truck back could make a decent container for shipping. In response, people said these containers would be too heavy. To deal with that issue, he redesigned the connection between trucks and boxes. He got a crane to lift them. He thought up a rail system to move cranes up and down a ship. He reinvented the whole system of loading and unloading ships. “Successful disrupters are people who are capable of an active imagination,” said Gladwell. “They begin reimagining their world by reframing the problem in a way no one had framed it before.”

McLean removed the constraints that originally hemmed in his ideas. He turned challenges into opportunities. When longshoremen went on strike because of the changes he was making, he used to the time to retrofit ships and bring in larger containers. When he tried to get a crane built to move these heavier containers, builders told him they couldn’t do it fast enough, so he went to a timber company and bought one of theirs. There was doggedness to McLean that was elemental to his success.

Become an innovator. Be fearless about failure. Get fired. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. Reframe a problem to come up with new solutions, and then chase them doggedly. 

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