I spoke to Malcolm Gladwell today and I didn’t miss the opportunity to discuss football. Well, partly it was about how football is not his passion. But don’t worry about that. We were both born in England in the same year and we were both there in 1966. He somehow was not impacted by the sporting events of that year. Or at least not in ways that are recognisable. But it could be in his unconscious when he makes decisions? About the same time his parents headed for Canada, mine headed for Australia.
And yet Malcolm did have some very important things to say about sport and football in particular.
Malcolm’s ideas as I heard them
Malcolm made the point that a small percentage of people have both a large social network (say 150 plus close non-family relationships as opposed to 35 for most of us), and contacts in many different social worlds (say 15 to 20 different social groups as opposed to 3 to 5). Social worlds could be professions or sporting groups or say particular artistic interest groups. These people, he calls them connectors, rapidly transfer information across an organisation or across society. So when there is a crisis or a call to action, it is generally the connectors we hear and perhaps follow - as opposed to others that have no connection to us.
Then there is another group of people, that Malcolm calls mavens, who accumulate knowledge about particular subjects. Briefly, the idea is that in a society where there is too much information to be helpful for people to make decisions about very complex issues, we rely on the advice of mavens. The example he gave was buying a laptop and relying on the advice of his brother who has a piece of tape in the middle of his glasses.
Malcolm also talked about how people who study a subject deeply and gain extensive practical experience develop an ability to tap into their unconscious to made very fast and accurate decisions. Here he used the example of Ronaldo who will take a striking opportunity instantaneously, without conscious thought, by drawing on all his experience and training. And that if he did think about the shot then someone would have the time to take the ball from him. Or as we often see in the A-League, a player creates a fantastic opportunity, and then takes time to think about his shot and powers it straight to the goalkeeper or wide. So Malcolm would probably advise that we need to select strikers that can act ‘at a glance’, who will look at a fast moving situation and be able to make the correct call and to subconsciously draw on their knowledge and training. And make the decision that gets the goal.
I asked Malcolm about his emphasis on people over decision making technologies. And this is where we hit sporting pay-dirt. He said:
‘I am a big sports fan and there is a debate about the use of computer driven algorithms to assess the skills of players… there are limits to this type of analysis, some people are un-coach-able, or may do drugs and stay up late or may not exercise in the off season, the computer may not pick these things up. So you need both computers and intuitive assessment for complex issues.’
We discussed American author Michael Lewis’s Moneyball which is about how the last placed team in American baseball became the first placed team by using a computer algorithm to select players.
Malcolm Gladwell is a great speaker and has written two books:
‘The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference’ Abacus 2000
‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’ Little, Brown and Company (2005)
He is also a writer with the New Yorker Magazine and is currently writing his third book.
Malcolm on sport.