Why do we miss disruptive innovations?

Tim has written a bit on the blog about Charles Darwin so I thought I would follow along this theme with another idea. As Tim says, the first big test of Darwin’s radical ideas on the formation of new species was a presentation to the Linnean society. Darwin’s supporters chose the Linnean society because of its preeminence in the scientific community of the day.

I think the most interesting aspect of the first presentation of the Origin of Species is that the members of the society found it completely unremarkable. Indeed, some members actually fell asleep. It wasn’t until Darwin’s book was published and widely read that the full implications of the theory, and what it meant for biology, religion and society, were realized. The experts were among the last group of people to see the breakthrough that Darwin was talking about.

It’s a good innovation story because it reminds us that experts can’t be relied upon to pick the significance of breakthrough ideas and technologies. We become experts through extensive training in how to see the world in a particular way. The famous historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, called these ‘ways of seeing’, paradigms. Experts don’t choose to see the world in a particular way. Instead, the paradigm is a deeply ingrained set of language and mental models. Expertise is valuable, but it also comes with a cost in terms of existing commitments to old ideas.

A consequence of this is that real breakthroughs are often unheralded because they don’t conform to the ways that experts think they should work. An example of this is what I think is a very significant innovation in the energy industry- and its not solar! In fact, it’s probably one of the last things you would think of. The breakthrough is…., shale gas! The significance of the technology that allows gas to be extracted from shale (a very common rock) has slowly caught on but I think that Daniel Yergin is right when he talks about the possibility of this innovation creating a fundamental shift in the global energy industry. Now if we start thinking about cheap natural gas in conjunction with fuel cells that produce distributed electricity at very high efficiency, things start to get really interesting. However, the dominant mindset in Australia is that success is defined by your ability to turn your gas reserves into liquefied natural gas and export in huge ships over the 30 year life of the gas field.

The energy game might be about to change quickly and the major players could be caught napping.

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