The secret behind radical innovation

Our global knowledge grows in slow, incremental steps. Darwin and Einstein mostly reinterpreted existing ideas. However, practical implementations sometimes take the world by storm. You might think that the experts are responsible for changing the world. Unfortunately, experts are not good at thinking outside the box. Indeed, their livelihood depends on them keeping the box closed. They are known as experts precisely because they focus on the existing knowledge and systems.

Thus, radical implementations come from the black sheep, the misfits, the outliers.

  • The librarians did not invent the Web. A physicist turned IT consultant did. In fact, the librarians resisted the Web initially, and it took nearly a decade or so before some of them allowed the Web in their libraries.  To this day, librarians are still catching up. Moreover, the web was popularized by a start-up, Netscape, whereas large companies (with deep pockets) such as Microsoft ignored it.
  • was not invented by a bookstore company. In fact, the first Web sites created by bookstores were nothing more than a reproduction of their paper ads online. It took a radically different player, one which did not have anything invested in the old book publishing model to invent
  • While we know little about Gutenberg, he was not a scribe who grew a better way to copy books. Try as they may, the scribes could not invent the printing press.
  • Journalists did not come up with blogs. In fact, many of them resisted blogs for a very long time. Now? Now their newspapers are closing down and they are struggling for new solutions.

The lessons?

  • The next Google is not going to come from a University professor.
  • There is a difference between a crank and a misfit. Unfortunately, most experts won’t be able to tell them apart.

Further reading: Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted? by Michael Nielsen

Daniel Lemire, "The secret behind radical innovation," in Daniel Lemire's blog, October 28, 2009.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

7 thoughts on “The secret behind radical innovation”

  1. Going a step further, I doubt it is just experts that have a hard time distinguishing misfits from cranks.

    I am not even sure the misfits themselves know whether they are a crank or not until they put in the work, try their idea, and either succeed or fail.

  2. Ah! But the real question is what is the ratio between cranks and misfits. How many start-ups fail for each Google or Amazon that succeeds amazingly. How many fail for everyone that even turns a profit? As always, the more risk you are willing to take the greater the benefits or failures you are likely to reap!

    If you can, take the risk, dare to make the world a better place and if you fail, don’t be discouraged, just try again!

  3. The first Google came from graduate students, who might have gotten some ideas from their cranky “University professor”…

  4. It is true that people who succeed in the current system have little incentive to dismantle it. Why should librarians, bookstores, newspapers, or journalists try to make themselves obsolete? So it should come as no surprise that the innovators of these technologies had nothing to lose from the innovation.

    But I think attributing all “radical innovation” to “misfits” is a mistake. Let’s look at a few other radical innovations. When Louis Pasteur invented vaccination, he was a biomedical researcher. The breakthroughs at Bell Labs and Xerox PARC came from experts, specialists, researchers. Thomas Edison was a researcher. Nikola Tesla was a researcher. Ben Franklin was a researcher.

    For the most part, inventing new technology is the job of researchers and innovators, not librarians or scribes. Unsurprisingly, the most radical innovations often come from people who specialize in innovation. No secret.

  5. I agree with Scott Frye completely. I want to take it one step further. Even though we may not be the innovators. We can use and share what we learn. In this way we can all participate in innovation. Using and sharing are so critical to new technology and new innovations.

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