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3 Ways Malcolm Gladwell Says Businesses Can Elevate Their Path To Growth

3 Ways Malcolm Gladwell Says Businesses Can Elevate Their Path To Growth

3 Ways Malcolm Gladwell Says Businesses Can Elevate Their Path To Growth

When he published his debut The Tipping Point in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell compared the way social phenomena and ideas spread to an epidemic. As the world emerges from COVID-19, then, he may be the ideal person to explore how the pandemic will change the way we live, work and learn.

Speaking during Salesforce Canada’s most recent Path To Growth virtual event recently, Gladwell — who has also authored bestsellers such as Blink and Outliers — was quick to recognize the challenges businesses have faced over the past 18 months. However he also offered a highly optimistic outlook on what the future may hold.

“We’re poor affective forecasters — in other words, we’re bad at forecasting our emotional state in the future,” he said. “For those who have had a difficult time during the pandemic, just know that, in all likelihood, things are likely going to look a lot better a year from now.”

Gladwell recalled a recent conversation with the CEO of a major airline, for example, who told him about how the company used the crisis to accomplish the equivalent of 10 years’ worth of innovation in a matter of 12 months.

“That must be happening everywhere. And that makes me very excited,” he said. “Whenever there is a moment of sustained learning, I think we always come out better on the other side.”

Customers may also be more open to digital experiences as a result of shifts made out of necessity during lockdown, Gladwell said. Telemedicine is just one example. He talked about seeing a demonstration of a telemedicine solution a decade ago that worked perfectly well, but failed to gain traction.

“No one I knew ever had a digital conversation with their doctor. Now they are,” he said. “That’s not going away, and it’s an incredibly important move forward — it’s allowing us to leverage the expertise of doctors and reach people in their homes or on the go who would otherwise never be able to reach a medical professional.”

The same was true in fields like education, where teachers and students were thrust into online-only learning. Even if the experience wasn’t perfect, he suggested use of those digital channels will continue, and will be refined and improved over time.

“Multiply those learning’s out a thousandfold across the economy and we’re going to come out with some productivity gains we couldn’t have dreamed of before COVID,” he said.

Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, Gladwell shared three other important ideas:

A Digital Headquarters Needs To Optimize For ‘Horizontal Learning’

Before the pandemic, Gladwell said, the default notion among most organizations was that the physical office was the best place to do everything. After COVID-19, many businesses are now realizing they can empower their teams to achieve success from anywhere, operating a “digital headquarters” that isn’t limited to physical spaces.

As they do that, though, Gladwell said leaders need to recognize how employee experiences may need to be enhanced through digital channels. For younger employees in particular, he said, coming to an office was a good way to observe their more experienced coworkers.

“The office is a learning environment,” he said. “Also, when we’re in the office, we have a much clearer sense of what we’re meant to do . . . we need to be a lot more specific in thinking through the effects of this radical shift.”

This doesn’t mean abandoning remote work, of course. Instead, Gladwell advised business leaders to be more intentional about setting up an environment that promotes idea sharing at every level.

“In vertical learning, the teacher tells you X,Y,Z and you pick up on it,” he said. “With horizontal learning, you learn from your peers. What we learned out of the frustration of online education is that we underestimated the value of horizontal learning. There’s a lot more productive engagement that happens peer to peer.”

Wellness Has To Become A Top Business Priority

Gladwell’s father, who worked as a mathematician at the University of Waterloo, had a rule of never working past 4:00 p.m. That was when he would go for a walk, tend to the family garden or play with his dog. It was a good lesson in setting boundaries.

“One of the functions of the workplace is, it disciplined our tendency to overwork,” he said. “There was an expectation of when you should start and when you should leave. And it was obvious when someone was overworking.”

It’s become clear, however, that many people worked more hours than usual during the pandemic without always being more productive. The result can be burnout. That’s why Gladwell said business leaders and even employees need to learn to detect signs of overwork that might be hidden in a digital-first environment.

We worked many more hours during the pandemic. Productivity was flat but hours worked increased. This is not sustainable. We dodged a bullet because this whole thing lasted a year and a half and we are emerging from it.

“There are real limits to the kind of cognitive resources that are available to people doing complicated things,” he said. “Our response to this was to increase the time spent on work. That may be okay in the short term but it’s not in the long-term.”

The Digital Transformation Momentum Must Be Maintained

“There are a lot of ingrained practices that resisted the exploitation of the full promise of digitization,” Gladwell said. On the plus side, the pandemic forced businesses to expand online and embrace digital tools. That doesn’t mean the transformation is over, however.

“The trick is, how do we keep this going?” He said. “You don’t want this impulse to innovation to disappear. We did the low-hanging fruit through COVID. What’s the non-obvious things we can learn from that can keep us running up this productivity curve? That’s going to require a second round of thinking and innovating and strategizing.”

Companies may worry about doing that while also trying to prevent employees from quitting their jobs, but Gladwell even found an upside to what’s being called the “great resignation”: he said we’re all going to get a crash course in how knowledge transfer works.

“What if there’s an influx of very digitally savvy people to industries that have been sitting on the sidelines for the last 20 years?” he said. “When lots of people jump from one place to another, they take things with them, and those things are always useful. And that’s exciting. That could be another boost.”

Or perhaps, as Gladwell once put it, another tipping point.

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