“What does it mean to move from incremental change to something dramatic and substantial?” keynote speaker Malcolm Gladwell asked the 2,000-plus attendees gathered on the opening day of SiriusDecisions Summit 2014 in Orlando.

Gladwell, known for his bestselling books on decisionmaking, success, idea adoption and other social science topics, skipped a traditional slide presentation and explained his ideas about transformation by telling several stories on wide-ranging topics.

While he never explicitly discussed B2B sales and marketing, the connection was clear: All forms of transformation – and, equally importantly, acceptance of a new idea – start with reframing.

Would-be change-makers must begin by questioning their fundamental assumptions. This crucial task can be quite difficult, Gladwell said. For some people, the questioning may lead to the realization that they are no longer in the business they thought they were in.

For example, for radio to make the leap from fringe invention to runaway success nearly 100 years ago, the technology needed to be reframed. As Gladwell explained, a brief broadcast of a pivotal boxing match in the 1920s represented the point when radio was first portrayed as something other than a news broadcast mechanism: it was now a way for listeners to attend a sporting event without leaving their living rooms.

Reframing has also been crucial for government initiatives. Gladwell noted that until the mid-1980s, the U.S. government’s campaigns to encourage seatbelt use met with little success, because they were viewed as an infringement on citizens’ personal choices. However, by quietly passing state-level laws requiring children to be restrained, governments were able to frame the issue as one of parental responsibility – and turn children into vehicle safety advocates within their families. 

Often, transformation and reframing must cut across multiple businesses and sectors that work together. Transportation entrepreneur Malcom McLean revolutionized cargo transport – and the world’s economies – by popularizing container-based methods, but for the new ideas to take off, every industry involved also needed to transform. Ship manufacturers, truckers, dock workers and countless others were forced to reconsider their old identities and develop new roles.

Finally, while it’s likely that few Summit attendees expected to hear about prostate cancer screenings at the keynote address, the testing procedures and treatment protocols that men typically encounter these days at the doctor’s office also reflect a historical reframing and transformation, Gladwell said. Now that screening and treatment has become complex and controversial, doctors must reshape their patient relationships and consider each man’s values, risk tolerance and opinions.

“Going back and reimagining what you do is absolutely essential for transformation,” Gladwell concluded. His speech was well received by Summit 2014’s audience of sales, marketing and product leaders – because for B2B professionals, especially at companies with deeply established corporate identities, the thought of discarding an old identity can be alarming. But reframing and reinventing can allow a new and better identity to break through, allowing organizations to reach new markets and new buyers through true transformation.