Remember Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers? He suggested that icons such as Bill Gates and The Beatles succeeded not only because of their sheer brilliance, but also due to investing more than 10,000 hours perfecting their theories, models, and performance techniques before they became overnight successes.

I buy into Gladwell's hypothesis, and think it explains why my firm has succeeded for more than 20 years. Had my business partner and I not worked alongside each other at two previous PR firms (and amassed 10,000-plus hours of experience identifying each other's strengths and weaknesses), I doubt we would have succeeded. Instead, in September of 1995, when we opened our door for the first time, we knew exactly what to do.

Here's another example of the power of hours, albeit from a company that opened its doors in the year 1665 and has compiled some three million hours of trial-and-error.

French-based multinational Saint-Gobain embraces the Gladwellian approach that made Gates, McCartney & Lennon and Cody & Moed successful (I've always wanted to include Cody & Moed in the same sentence as Lennon & McCartney).

I recently spoke with Minas Apelian, vice president, R&D, Quality and External Venturing for Saint-Gobain, a client of ours, to better understand how a corporation that old stays so fresh. Here are his five tips:

1. Challenge mastery. Saint-Gobain has been manufacturing glass for 350 years. That's many hours more than Gladwell suggests, but their mastery still demands change. They are constantly looking at how the products they develop can do more. To challenge the norm, they always look for ideas to improve products to serve customers better, either by improving the processes or by adding useful and innovative functionalities to seemingly simple products. For example, they now make glass that changes color to improve visual comfort and energy efficiency in buildings and drywall that actively cleans the air.

2. Look outside for inspiration. The best ideas come from entrepreneurs and the next generation. Saint-Gobain's NOVA Innovation Competition, for example, rewards startups with innovative solutions in the field of habitat, sustainable products, advanced materials, renewable energy sources, and high-efficiency building solutions. They are given the chance to grow and succeed with the support of three million hours of built-in practice and know-how. NOVA's vision is to be a bold catalyst for collaboration between Saint-Gobain and the startup ecosystem.

3. Size doesn't matter. Many who work in the innovation space know it's not the big idea that matters, but the small one. Many of their new and coolest technologies are scaled down from larger inventions and readapted for new and innovative uses. Cell phones? Adapted as a side project from space travel and engineering. Tesla's new home battery? A new use formed from an existing technology. Today's innovators are able to look at both the big and small for innovation. In fact, their GreenGlue, which now has five products on the market, started with the simple need for its inventor to amplify his home theater experience.

4. Diversify everywhere: Innovation can only be born from looking at the world in a different way from your personal POV. Smart innovators surround themselves with individuals who bring to the table different experiences, perspectives, and ideas. Ensuring that your workforce is full of employees who span generations and geographies, genders, and ethnicities means that you never fall victim to assumption and can truly achieve the global perspective that provides a competitive edge.

5. Forget Fear and Failure: Entrepreneurs know this mantra well, but it often can get lost as companies grow. Keeping this as a core to everything Saint-Gobain does helps our R&D pipeline stay fresh and--at times - forgiving. And often their failures have ultimately led to success. For example it took many years, and failed trials, for glass fiber process to surpass competitors. Talk about practice. That one took some 100,000 hours.

So, what are you waiting for? Start building up those 10,000 (or three million) hours now. It seems to me, it's a guarantee of success. Just ask Sir Paul (or Sir Ed for that matter).



Published on: May 27, 2015
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