As the final speaker at the HSM World Innovation Forum yesterday, Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer, author, and Fast Company profilee, gave an interesting talk on two types of creativity, inspired by a book by David Galenson on Cezanne and Picasso.
Galenson writes that Picasso, a conceptual innovator, pretty much knew what he was going to create even before he created it, and came up with new ideas at a rapid pace early in his career. Cezanne, by contrast, was an experimental innovator, slowly rehashing and improving on a particular concept until he nailed it (one needs only to look at his exhaustive studies of Mt. St. Victoire to understand this approach). Consequently, his greatest works—or at least the ones most valued by collectors—didn't come until later in his life.
These two types of innovations, which Galenson argues, and which Gladwell agrees, can be extended into other arenas, such as music, and more to the point of the conference, business. Now, this idea has been around for a bit—Gladwell has been giving this talk for a while now (maybe one of the reasons he seemed to have it down pat yesterday), and the theory has its skeptics, but for the purposes of the forum yesterday, had some interesting points to make.
"One of the troubling this in business today," says Gladwell, is that companies are "favoring precocious innovation [of the Picasso kind] and have lost patience with innovation that takes a long time to mature [a la Cezanne]." In order to be successful, he argues, you need both.
Comparing the U.S. and the Japanese automotive industries, he said that the big three have traditionally relied on the big hits, be it the muscle cars of the 60s, the minivans of the 80s, and the SUVs of the 90s. "In this way, the U.S. automobile industry are Picassos—which is the only time you'll hear that in a sentence," he quipped.
The Japanese, though, while rarely, if ever, coming out with a new style of car, slowly innovate to perfect those models, such as Toyota's hybrid engine. Gladwell also drew examples from the pharmaceutical industry, which, ironically, is focused on Picasso-style innovation even though their most successful products—namely, Viagra and Lipitor—came out of Cezanne-style innovation.
So why are U.S. businesses nowdays so fixated on the quick fix? It's a lot less riskier. The conceptualists, says Gladwell, can approach a company's board and say, We're going to solve this problem, and this is how we're going to do it. Experimentalists, on the other hand, don't necessarily know where their research is going to lead them, will probably take longer, and have a tougher time articulating their plan of action. With limited budgets and patience, it's the former that get funded. But increasingly, Gladwell says, we're encountering problems that can only be solved through extended trial and error. Furthermore, he adds, consumers are more likely to develop a stronger emotional bond to products that take longer to develop, rather than something that debuts in its final form.
Now, while Gladwell didn't advocate completely going over to the Cezanne-style of innovation, he urged those in attendance that a healthy mix of the two methods of creativity is needed in order to truly be competitive.