The Truth Behind Innovation

In a New Yorker piece, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the history of Xerox PARC, Apple and the invention of the personal computer as a point of discussion around the nature of creativity & innovation.


Author and provocateur Malcolm Gladwell has written an article for The New Yorker titled “The Annals Of Business: Creation Myth.” In this analysis and recounting of business history, Gladwell explores the creation of the personal computer via the ideas and innovations of Xerox PARC and Apple. Specifically, who is credited with the invention – he/they who created it, or who successfully adapted and executed it?

Gladwell recounts the story beginning with Steve Jobs’ visit to Xerox PARC (the company’s innovation arm) in 1979, learning of the Xerox Alto (PARC’s personal computer, with mouse, icons and ‘windows’), Xerox’ eventual discontinuation of Alto sales and withdrawal from the PC market, Jobs’ return to Apple and insistence on changing development course to include on-screen menus, a mouse and windows – and the ultimate launch of the infamous Macintosh.

But more interesting than the history itself, are some of the observations and questions raised by Gladwell:

  • Did Jobs “steal” the personal computer from Xerox, or did he and Apple adapt some of Xerox PARC’s ideas for a different audience?
  • Is it even possible to determine who invented particular ideas or products? Citing the example of RMA and high-tech military systems, author Dima Adamsky argues that it took three revolutions for an idea created by one country/party to ultimately take actionable, applicable form by another. Additionally, Gladwell points out that ‘Adamsky’s point is that each of these strands is necessarily distinct, drawing on separate skills and circumstances.’
  • Lastly, Gladwell draws some observations about creativity and innovation – specifically, that there is nothing neat about it. In other words, ‘the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too. This is why managing the creative process is so difficult.’

Agree or disagree with Gladwell’s opinions, the article raises some good points based on business (and even military) history: ideas and innovation are not a simple matter of ‘I said it first!’ Ideas oftentimes evolve and are reshaped between their first prototype and their execution (or first, second time to market). Disruptive innovation happens – and he/she that adapts an idea best to the needs of a changing market will succeed. This also bears implications for those learning to manage and improve the creative process – allow for an idea to shift and morph for one permeation (and even originator) to another.

The New Yorker: “Creation Myth: Xerox PARC, Apple, and the truth about innovation”

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