Seeing Things Differently

One of the major themes on the blog is how innovations are created from new connections. The connections can be between people or technologies. Today I want to continue this connections theme but instead talk about innovations resulting from new connections in our minds. To start with, have a look at this famous optical illusion.
Duck Rabbit

Depending on how you look at it, it can be a duck or a rabbit. It’s a neat little mind trick but it also tells us that our brains are capable of reconnecting information to create different interpretations of the world. This is actually a big area of psychology called the theory of Gestalt, if you want to do some more reading. Thomas Kuhn, in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” made the observation from his case histories that scientific theories didn’t move incrementally over time, as you might expect from a gradual process of knowledge generation. Instead, dominant theories (paradigms) were able to exist for extended periods of time and then, when the evidence for a new theory built to a critical point, the scientific community would switch to a new paradigm quite quickly. Science moves in jumps rather than steps.

Kuhn thought that a way to explain these jumps was in terms of Gestalt switches like the duck-rabbit illusion. One scientist could look at the evidence and ‘see’ one theory, while another might look at the evidence and see something completely different. This might explain why scientific communities can shift from one theory to another quite quickly but it doesn’t really explain the extended periods of stability that Kuhn observed in the progress of science. However, Kuhn had a provocative explanation for this too. Have a look at this video of the duck-rabbit illusion for children.

With the static image of the duck-rabbit we can choose to see which image we want but when we have someone telling us what to see and reinforcing the image with other information, it gets a lot harder to make the choice. Kuhn was of the opinion that scientists become socialized into a community through learning to be legitimate scientists, so that they are trained to see phenomena in particular ways that support the dominant paradigm. Changing paradigms happens with great reluctance, not just because it requires a great number of people to see something in a different way but also because careers and authority are established upon the paradigm. Seeing things differently is a threat to the hierarchy.

So what does Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions mean for encouraging innovation? Well I think one insight is that innovation is a struggle against the power of a dominant logic that stops us recombining information in our minds and getting new insights. Making insightful connections is more likely to happen when we get shielded from the dominant logic. I like the story of the inventor of the bionic ear, Prof Graham Clark, who came up with the idea of the cochlear implant while visiting a beach with his family. Clark was playing with a shell and a blade of grass and realized that the grass would curl around the inside of the shell and keep contact with the surface. The modern cochlear implant still works on the same principle. If you want to get people thinking in a new way, get them out of the routine work environment and engaging with people and ideas that are very different from the norm.

The other way to find pockets of resistance to the dominant paradigm is in people who are on the fringes of organizations. They can be new or just from a different work background but they are much less likely to get trapped in the dominant logic.

If you walk out of your next meeting with a smile on your face because everybody always agrees on problems and solutions, perhaps it’s time to start reading Thomas Kuhn and his explanation for the difficulty of seeing things in different ways. Constructive conflict is always a good thing.

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