Thomas Kuhn & Meaningful Innovation
Note to my readers: You may not like the contents of this post. It’s not meant to be a judgement, but an observation. I am certainly guilty of the behavior I am discouraging. Though I would not categorize myself as one of our best and brightest…
But to understand Kuhn’s objection, you need to understand Kuhn’s work. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote one of the most influential pieces in the philosophy of science; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you consider yourself an innovator in any field, you should read it. At its core, Kuhn’s argument centered on something he called paradigm shifts. Like Christensen’s “disruption” or Ries’ “lean” in our modern innovation vernacular, the term paradigm shift has been wildly misinterpreted by the public. If you think you know what a paradigm shift is, but aren’t familiar with Kuhn, you probably don’t.
While I can’t do Kuhn’s study justice in a few hundred words, I will simplify his theory as best I can. Essentially, Kuhn argued that throughout scientific history, true changes in our understanding of the world were only derived when scientists made observations that ran contrary to popular understanding. Copernicus’ observation and defence of a heliocentric understanding of the solar system in the face of a geocentric standard allowed us to better understand the movements of the planets. Einstein’s theory of relativity ran contrary to the widely accepted Newtonian physics and have helped us master spaceflight. As Kuhn saw it, each time a scientist made an observation that broke our understanding of the world, a new set of explanations for how the world worked was able to fall out. While we had previously spent centuries explaining the movement of the stars (incorrectly) based on a geocentric understanding of the solar system, we were able to create a new and far more accurate set of explanations once Copernicus had simply proved the earth, in fact, revolved around the sun.
As Kuhn made his argument, what emerges is a complex explanation for why these sorts of contrarian observations allow us to change our most fundamental assumptions. Once our assumptions had been changed, as Kuhn saw it, a better understanding of the world could emerge. Even more, as Kuhn positioned the argument, once our assumptions had been changed a more complete understanding of the world was bound to emerge. Subsequent improvements to understanding within the new paradigm – the new set of assumptions – could be viewed as assembling pieces of a puzzle that was created by the scientist who made the original observation that ran contrary to popular theory.
In just a couple hundred pages, Kuhn’s argument shines. He walks his readers through countless paradigm shifts and helps them understand the implications of such shifts. But Kuhn’s argument isn’t only restricted to the realm of the hard sciences; it also applies in our start-up world. Consider the 90’s gold rush in consumer Internet, the mid-2000’s rush into social media, and the current exodus into mobile computing. Each of these revolutions in the technology world was enabled by innovation that broke the existing paradigm. The development and proliferation of dial-up Internet allowed millions of individuals to instantly access information, information that was previously assumed had to be delivered via paper products or in bricks and mo0rtar locations. The development of the php language made it possible for everyone to be a content publisher online, an ability previously assumed to be relegated to the world of developers. The simultaneous creation of mobile operating systems, touch screens, and high speed telecommunications networks made it possible for us to serve information to consumers anywhere they might be, where we previously assumed they had to be connected to a Wi-Fi network.
When we push our best innovators to break the rules, to test our fundamental assumptions, and to innovate meaningfully in hardware and software, new waves of disruption will fall out. Paradigm shifts, the kind that emerge when technologists create something that business leaders never imagined possible, spur the creation of new industries and the development of new jobs. But we don’t get to that point by putting innovators on a pedestal for creating quick wins, for getting their names on TechCrunch, or for getting funded by investors looking for easy commercialization, we encourage incremental innovation.
In order to spur meaningful innovation, we may need to support our most talented scientists and managers in doing something wildly unpopular and increasingly less “sexy.” We may need to encourage them to work for large corporations with well funded research labs, extensive distribution networks, and the ability to move markets. In the last decade, Apple, Google, and the telecommunications networks innovated meaningfully to enable the sorts of paradigm shifts I’ve described. In the 1990’s, it was Prodigy and Aol and the broadband networks. In the 80’s it was Microsoft, IBM, and Intel. In the 70’s, groundbreaking research was falling out of Xerox and NASA. Though each company was once a fledgling startup, when each innovated in a way that changed the business world’s very landscape, each was a major corporation.
We need to understand who creates value, and encourage those who can to replicate that behavior. We need to stop directing people towards early stage organizations if their talents could be best leveraged in other fashions. And if the start up world is the right place for an innovator, we need to steer them to build lasting organizations; organizations that will exist long enough to enable the paradigm shifts that generate meaningful value in society.
Scientists in the academic world understand the implications and importance of Kuhn’s theory. It’s time we bring it into the start up world.