If you have never heard of Malcolm Gladwell, then you should go look him up now. If you have never read any of his books, then you should buy every single one of them now.
At this year’s Synergy Global Forum in New York, Gladwell used parallels from Henry Rowan and John Paulson as well as the worlds of soccer and basketball to illustrate a critical point about strong links and weak links in the digital era and in business.
Henry Rowan, a philanthropist and engineer, made his fortune from induction furnace production. Since he wanted to give his wealth to support higher education, he decided to support smaller schools over larger ones including Doane Academy in New Jersey and Glassboro State College which was later renamed Rowan University after him. On the other hand, John Paulson, a philanthropist and investor who made a massive fortune on Wall Street, also wanted to donate his wealth to higher education. In doing so, he chose to contribute to bigger, more well-funded schools including New York University and Harvard University, after which the engineering school was renamed after him.
From both examples, Gladwell wonders whether it is more effective to make an education system better by strengthening its already strong links or to invest in smaller schools to make those weak links stronger. The same idea translated easily to the world of sports. “Soccer is a game of mistakes,” Gladwell told the audience, “If you replace your worst player with a better player, you’ll minimize your mistakes. If one person makes a mistake, the whole [game] sequence evaporates.” The best way for a soccer team to improve then, he says, is to “spend more on pretty good players instead of less on one excellent player.”
The opposite is true in basketball. “If you want to make a basketball team better, your best strategy is to replace your best player with someone even better,” Gladwell said. Since the game does not depend on the number of mistakes made in order to get a decent score, “it is a strong link game.”
To that end, dividing the world into strong links and weak links is very useful in helping company leaders and managers to understand what makes good organizations work well and what makes otherwise good organizations work poorly. It serves as a catalyst to help us improve our business structure and fix broken systems. “The way you fix systems is that you fix its weakest link,” Gladwell said. This idea and thought process is useful especially in the digital age.
Gladwell posed the question, “Is this new digital society a weak link or strong link?” The answer, he said, is that it is a weak link. The reason is because it requires many people to work on many projects simultaneously. When something proves to be successful, people tend to build on that to make it even more successful. Instead, Gladwell says a better path forward is to improve in the areas of weakness which equates to playing a game of soccer over a game of basketball.
The digital age is fragile and it is really difficult to adapt to its changing realities. But Gladwell challenged the audience to take the most appropriate steps to “prepare for a future where we are playing soccer,” and aiming to strengthen the weakest links in our companies, lives, and society.