News & Insights

The Smart Stranger, Part 2: The Power of Outsiders

by Elliot Weissbluth on July 04, 2017

“What can the story of an outsider tell us about spurring innovation?” asks this New York Times video, featuring Charles DuHigg: https://www.nytimes.com/video/business/100000004807604/the-power-of-outsiders.html

The video tells the story of Malcolm McLean who, in the 1930s, had an idea about speeding up the cargo shipping industry. Instead of a crew unloading 40 bales of goods from each truck and reloading them one-by-one onto the ship, wouldn’t it be faster to pick all 40 up off the truck at once?

Yes—much faster (8 hours, vs. a week the old way). And cheaper (16 cents/ton vs. $6.00/ton).

McLean was an outsider. He didn’t work on a dock. He drove a truck. His idea was initially dismissed by shippers, who believed that building faster ships was the ticket to speedier deliveries. But McLean was onto something, and he stuck to his guns. And today, container ships are the standard vessel for shipping goods around the world.

When you are an outsider looking in, you have the power of perception on your side. This I know from experience: as a former litigator turned CEO of a financial services firm, I think about my business in a different light than people who have worked on Wall Street for their whole careers.

I’ve said it before: the best ideas – true innovations – come from people working around the edges of their expertise. “Smart strangers” know enough to be informed, but aren’t tied to the old way of doing things.

Like Malcolm McLean, who saw the biggest innovation in modern shipping from the cab of his truck.

# Americans Innovation Outsiders

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