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Malcolm Gladwell on the Tranformational Power of Reframing at SiriusDecisions Summit

Malcolm Gladwell, the keynote speaker at the 2014 SiriusDecisions Annual Summit, spoke about business transformation, and how to go about creating change that is truly disruptive.  His solution: reframe the problem.  He provided three great examples (I’m leaving out the eurology one) that I think provide a blueprint for how powerfully disruptive reframing can be.


1. “We create experiences, not boxes.”

In 1921, radio was a technology that struggled to gain wide adoption in the home.  RCA, the market leader in radio box manufacturing, could not change the perception in the market that radios were just another delivery mechanism for news coverage, and news coverage was a saturated market: there were paperboys hawking a new print edition of a newspaper 3 times per day. 

The biggest boxing fight of that generation, Dempsey vs. Carpentier, sold over 90,000 tickets in New Jersey and had an enormous $1.7M purse.It was the hottest ticket in town and an event that everyone wanted to experience.

A young and ambitious David Sarnoff, the future CEO of RCA, had a radical idea: why not do a live broadcast of the sporting event over the radio? It hadn’t been done before, but by reframing the radio as your portal to being able to experience a live event alongside all those in attendance, Sarnoff forever changed the perception of a “nice to have” into a “must have” and ushered in the era of the radio and, eventually, the television.

2. “Dad, why aren’t you wearing your seatbelt?”

Gladwell stated that many social policy experts agree that the most successful social change of the past century came in the 1980’s: people began to wear their seatbelts in high numbers for the first time in a decades-long public policy quest. But how did the transformational change happen?

For years, the government had tried to mandate seatbelt wearing, with public service announcements, print ads and even getting car manufacturers to create automatic seatbelts.Yet nobody wanted to listen, because people fundamentally don’t want to be told what to do by their government.

So legislators took a different tack: mandate seatbelts for very young children, which was a sensible law that was widely adopted. Once children were all buckled in, kids began asking their parents why they weren’t wearing their seatbelt, turning the 3-5 year old population into the largest lobbying group for adult seatbelt wearing that could not be ignored. Parents began to buckle up.

3. “We aren’t in the dock loading business, we’re in the ‘get goods from the manufacturer to the consumer’ business.”

Prior to 1956, the import/export business was fraught with inefficiency, scandal and mob involvement. Each stage of the process, from manufacturing, to delivery to the dock, to warehousing, to ship loading, to freight hauling and delivery at a new port was siloed, with each player attempting to maximize their own profitability.The result was astronomically high costs to export. But how could the problem be reframed to create transformationally lower costs?

Malcolm McLean had the answer: stop thinking about the problem in the siloes of shipping stages and think about the true problem of getting goods from the point of manufacture to the end consumer. At first, McLean had the idea to bypass the dock warehousing altogether and drive the trucks straight onto the ships and then drive them off the ships when they arrived, but for a variety of logistical reasons that didn’t work. But what about detaching the truck bed when it got to the ship? The shipping container was born, and with it a massive disruption of the entire distribution supply chain. The companies that did not adapt to the newest form of delivering goods—and every part of the supply chain needed to adapt to the container method—didn’t survive.


Transformational change can only come from reframing a problem to find a solution that breaks new ground. And if you’re not the person that brings about the transformation, you are still responsible for identifying when that change is happening in order to adapt. Or, as the old shipping companies that refused to adapt can tell you, you go extinct.