In an age of disruption the only viable strategy is to adapt. Today things move too quickly to stick with old paradigms once their time has passed. Once outdated platforms fail to solve new problems, they will be overtaken with blazing speed and we must either make a shift or get left behind.
Yet that’s easier said than done. As I’ve pointed out before, even Albert Einstein himself was unable to accept a new model for physics, even though he was the one who first brought it about. Changing our mental model of how the world works is an exceedingly hard thing to do.
In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn called this process a paradigm shift and there’s a lot more to it than you might think. It’s not enough to learn new ideas; we need to unlearn old ones. The tried and true, for all of its charms, will eventually be disrupted and, if we are to manage for disruption, we need to master the art of the shift.
The Making Of A Model
We spend a good portion of our lives learning established models. We go to school, train for a career and hone our craft. We make great efforts to learn basic principles and are praised when we show that we have grasped them. As strive to become masters of our craft we find that as our proficiency increases, so does our success and status.
Traditional models come to us with such great authority that we seldom realize that they too once were revolutionary. Einstein is revered for creating the new paradigm of relativity by showing that Newton’s mechanics were flawed. However, we often forget that Newton himself was a radical insurgent who rewrote the laws of nature and ushered in a new era.
Business models work the same way. Photocopying was a neat idea, but it didn’t sell. It took a revolutionary to realize that, while no one would buy a photocopier, many would be willing to lease one. It was with that idea that the Xerox Corporation was born and became a paragon of American industry.
Yet, as we now know, it was that same success that bred failure. Xerox, quite famously, continued to innovate. Its development of the laser printer kept profits rolling in even after its original business had plateaued. It also built much of the core technology that led to the computer revolution. The company, in fact, was an operational marvel.
And that, strangely enough, is what led to its fall from grace.
The Rise Of Best Practices And The Establishment Of A Mental Model
A new idea, whether it be a scientific principle or an operational model, gains power through its capacity to solve problems. As it proves its worth, it gains acceptance and becomes established. At some point, the idea is transformed into a doctrine that masters pass down to their students as part of the education process.
Eventually the idea is no longer considered to be a mere conceptual principle, but evolves into a set of best practices that are continually articulated and refined. In time, these practices themselves become benchmarks for performance and nobody thinks to question them. As Kuhn wrote:
When the individual scientist can take a paradigm for granted, he need no longer, in his major works, attempt to build his field anew, starting from first principles and justifying the use of each concept introduced. This can be left to the writer of textbooks.
At some point, best practices are no longer just a set of tools to promote operational efficiency, but become full fledged mental models. These models become hardwired in our brains through a process that neuroscientists call Hebbian plasticity. To violate them offends our sense of how the world works.
The “Special Case” That Just Won’t Go Away
Thoughtful practitioners realize that all rules have exceptions. Most of the time, these can be worked around fairly easily and the model stays largely intact. We adapt to particular situations with reasonable dexterity, making allowances for distinct sets of facts and then moving on. These, we regard as “special cases” and rarely give them much thought.
Eventually, however, these special cases start adding up and we must begin to confront failure. Diseases cannot be cured, machines cannot be made to work and seemingly inferior competitors start to win market share. In effect, we begin to realize that there is a special case that refuses to be confined to a special place.
Faced with a challenge, we hone our model and redouble our efforts. Einstein continued to insist that “God does not play dice with the universe” and became, as Oppenheimer put it, “a landmark, not a beacon.” When Canon and Ricoh challenged Xerox with cheaper copiers, it continued to make better ones and saw its market share drop by half within ten years.
By the time we realize that it has all been for naught, it is usually too late. We have already been disrupted.
The Beginner’s Mind
In earlier times, we could put some faith in the status quo. We could begin a career, rise up through the ranks and attain some level of prosperity and prestige. We were judged largely by our progress through certain stages of life and career: from adolescence to adulthood then retirement; entry level on to mid level, then finally senior level executive and so on.
Yet today, those assumptions have become anachronisms. The pace of technological change has become so rapid and pervasive, that it is hard to think of any industry today that operates as it did a decade ago. Every business model fails. Rather than banking on a career, we increasingly need to learn how to reinvent ourselves.
Once we begin to understand the challenge, the solution becomes clear: We need to learn how to unlearn. It takes a beginner’s mind to see a problem anew, without the constraints of history, doctrine and mental model. That’s when we can shift from a culture of performance to a culture of change and disruption becomes an opportunity instead of a threat.
To manage for disruption we need to realize that it is the mastery of one model that hinders our adoption of another; our drive for competence that renders us inept.