Transformation isn't easy. It means making people think and feel a different way Not a simple task.

But in the history of mankind, there are plenty of inspiring examples of people who brought forth transformative change. Facing plenty of negativity, they did so fearlessly, never giving up, never backing down. So the question becomes: What is the magical human formula that drives people like that?

This week at Inbound in Boston I had the pleasure of hearing Malcolm Gladwell, who talked about the same very topic. According to him, people who drive transformation share three traits:


Courage to explore the unexplored. Courage to defy the naysayers. Courage to persist when the whole world seems to be against you.

People who possess courage are:

  • Massively open and incredibly creative, willing to consider all kinds of innovative solutions.
  • Conscientious, willing to follow through on their ideas.
  • Disagreeable and independent, willing to disagree with what the world perceives as a "norm."

The combination of these three traits is what brings true magic to light. Some people are creative but not conscientious--they have no ability to execute on the idea. Some are great at execution but lack the openness. It is also not enough to have ideas and the discipline to carry them out. One has to tune out the naysayers, and the rest of the world, if necessary. The last one, though, is extremely hard for us humans to do because we naturally crave approval of our peers.

Ability to reframe the problem

Transformation requires reimagining every step of the current process. And that includes hiring, because people who are holding on to the legacy solutions are not those who will help you bring the transformation forth. You need people with a fresh outlook and a new mentality.

You also have to reframe the problem.

In the early 1920s, David Sarnoff was one of the people credited with helping radio become an entertainment necessity vs. a luxury. When the outdoor heavyweight championship boxing match between American Jack Dempsey and French challenger Georges Carpentier was dubbed the "Battle of the Century," Sarnoff pitched the idea to broadcast the boxing match to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). When they declined to do so, Sarnoff did it himself. And so, in 1921, they called it "the largest audience in history"--the 300,000 or so people estimated to have heard one of the first radio broadcasts of a special event. And suddenly radio wasn't just an expensive box that brings you the same news that plenty of newspapers did. Radio became a device that brought the world live into your own living room. Radio sales exploded, and it became mainstream.

What Sarnoff did was reframe the problem.

Sense of urgency

Innovators not only have courage to withstand the naysayers and the vision to reframe the problem but also possess a wicked sense of urgency, of getting stuff done, now. A lot of companies produced the innovations they didn't actually invent (they copied them), but because they acted upon the idea--no matter how imperfect--they were credited with those inventions first. And reaped the benefits.

Steve Jobs didn't invent the mouse, Xerox engineers did. But Jobs saw the brilliance of the idea and had to implement it. And he did. By the time Xerox came out with its product, Macintosh had already launched a far superior one. What set Jobs apart was his agility and burning desire to get it done.

Change is so hard for so many because of the difficulty of letting go of the legacy that was already built, no matter how outdated it is. Someone's identity is tied into the old way of thinking. It is a threat to someone's ego. The view is different from the ivory tower than from the streets. But to stay relevant, one needs to be open to transformation, even if it means rebuilding from scratch what one spent years constructing.