The word innovation is almost universally revered these days. We organize conferences, seminars, and workshops, we write books, case studies, and even poems about it. Businesses are built around the idea of innovating constantly, or at least so claim the marketing messages. Despite such great enthusiasm, however, we collectively seem to have a knack for ignoring innovation when we are staring squarely at its face.
A chapter of the book "Chaos: Making New Science" is devoted to the nature of scientific revolutions. Quoting Thomas S. Kuhn, a historian of science, the author retells a psychological experiment conducted in the 1940s. In this experiment subjects were given brief glimpses of playing cards and asked to name them. What they were not told was that there were trick cards in the deck, like a red six of spades or a black queen of diamonds.
At high speeds, the subjects identified the cards successfully, without perceiving any anomalies. But when the speed was reduced, and they had more time to look at the card, they began to hesitate. The brain had perceived some irregularity but was unable to name it. When the speed was further slowed down, the subjects started to catch on and make corrections.
Interestingly, though, not all of them. A portion of the subjects reported painful disorientation.
"I can't make that suit out, whatever it is. It didn't even look like a card that time. I don't know what color it is now or whether it's a spade or a heart. I'm not even sure what a spade looks like. My God!"
Kuhn argues that professional scientists are no less likely to suffer from similar disorientation when confronted with a situation that is identified by the current paradigm as an "incongruity." Indeed, one does not need to be a historian of science to recall examples of revolutionary scientists facing harsh resistance, and even hostility from their peers, for having dared to challenge the status quo of scientific progress.
Reading this, I realized that innovation faces the same challenges even outside the realm of cutting edge science. The example I immediately can recall is that of OnLive, or gaming with Cloud Computing in general. Since the first announcement of the concept, there has been quite a significant reaction to it, generally erring on the negative side. Many people have shared their opinions on why such a service is not even technically possible, while some others have argued the financial unfeasibility of the endeavour. Industry people have called it "the end of the golden age" for gaming, and even gamers have been uttering the name in contempt.
In marketing, the risk of rejection is sometimes expressed in terms of consumer behaviour. If a product or service requires "significant change in consumer behaviour," as innovation often does, it carries a high risk for rejection. In my technology entrepreneurship classes, the strategy that was most frequently cited was that of "Crossing the Chasm," to overcome that challenge.
It is interesting to observe a similar strategy from scientists who have been trying to let the world know of their revolutionary findings. Stories are abundant, of scientists "dumbing down" their own papers to get them published, or changing the style to make them appeal to their peers, or even choosing obscure journals to publish on, out of desperation. In other terms, disruptive innovation has a way of sneaking in through the back door, like a sketchy, shameful acquaintance that we do not want to be publicly associated with.
This makes me wonder about the wisdom of mass-marketing anything as a "truly revolutionary product" when there is actually truth to the claim. Thinking about the OnLive example again, it seems to me that the buzz has focused too much about the technology, and too little about the value that the consumers will derive, the latter almost dangerously assumed to be self-evident.
The same could be said about Project Natal from Microsoft. The applicability of the technology to consumer experience is still vague at best, outside a narrow range of genres and styles displayed in the E3 presentation.
The dead end on innovation street has a sign pointing to it; "Admiration of novelty for its own sake," it reads, and is very tempting to the innovator him/herself for the pride in having put it together. What we see, though, is that relevance is the key (to the backdoor even as it might be) to gain acceptance. Beautiful as they may be, the guts of your innovation do not necessarily matter much to your audience if they cannot discern how all of that relates to themselves. Even among the brilliant minds of the scientific community, it seems difficult to get people to read anything if they cannot see what the knowledge helps them to understand.
On the other hand a more personal lesson to be derived, whether you are a consumer, investor or entrepreneur, is to keep an open mind and not let great opportunities slip by blindly favouring probability over possibility. When innovation becomes the master of the house, it will reward those that let it in through the front door.
To end the post with a positive note:
If it really sounds too good to be true, it possibly is... true.