At one time in history, the Swiss dominated the watch industry. The Swiss themselves invented the electronic watch movement at their research institute in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It was rejected by every Swiss watch manufacturer. Based on their past experiences in the industry, they believed this couldn’t possibly be the watch of the future. After all, it was battery powered, did not have bearings or a mainspring and almost no gears. Seiko took one look at this invention that the Swiss manufacturers rejected and took over the world watch market.
You no doubt have noticed that the biggest innovative breakthroughs seem always to be made by people who have far less information and know less than the experts in the field. Einstein, for example, was by no means the most knowledgeable theoretical physicist of the 20th century. He often displayed a profound ignorance about certain aspects of his field. In contrast, many of his contemporaries had acquired much more information, gone to better schools, had better teachers, only to find they were unable to offer the world one single innovative idea.
Why is it that people who know more, see less? Consciously or unconsciously, we are anchored to our first impressions unless we actively change the way we look at the subject. Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1938. He tried to sell his electronic copier to every major corporation in the U.S. and was turned down emphatically by every single one. Because carbon paper was so cheap and plentiful no one, they said, would buy an expensive copy machine. Their thinking process was anchored by their initial impression of the cost of a copier versus the cost of carbon paper. This impression closed off all other lines of thought. It was Xerox, a new corporation that changed the perception of cost by leasing the machines.
Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs attempted without success to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer. As Steve recounts, “So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And their experts laughed and said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You’re a college dropout. Go back and get your degree.”
What is it that freezes the expert’s thought and makes it difficult to consider new things that deviate from their theories? The figure below illustrates a series of progressively modified drawings that change almost imperceptibly from a man into a woman. When test subjects are shown the entire series of drawings one by one, their perception of this intermediate drawing is biased according to which end of the series they started from. Test subjects who start by viewing a picture that is clearly a man are biased in favor of continuing to see a man long after an “objective observer” (an observer who has seen only a single picture) recognizes that the man is now a woman. Similarly, test subjects who start at the woman end of the series are biased in favor of continuing to see a woman.
Once an observer has formed an image–that is, once he or she has developed an expectation concerning the subject being observed–this influences future perceptions of the subject. Similarly, people who have a lot of experience in a particular field develop hypotheses about what is possible and what is not. This hypothesis biases their judgement about new ideas.
Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, was ridiculed by every scientist for his revolutionary liquid-fueled rockets. Even the New York Times chimed in with an editorial in 1921 by scientists who claimed that Goddard lacked even the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high school science classes. Pierrre Pachet a renowned physiology professor and expert declared, “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
If we experience any strain in imagining a possibility, we quickly conclude it’s impossible. This principle also helps explain why evolutionary change often goes unnoticed by the expert. The greater the commitment of the expert to their established view, the more difficult it is for the expert to do anything more than to continue repeating their established view. It also explains the phenomenon of a beginner who comes up with the breakthrough insight or idea that was overlooked by the experts who worked on the same problem for years.
Think, for a moment, about Federal Express and its founder Fred Smith. The US Postal Service, UPS and the airline industry tried to come up with an overnight delivery system of packages. They all decided it was not possible to do profitably. This solidified, over many years, into the established view. Fred Smith, an outlier, ignored the establishment and created an overnight system based on the hub and wheel concept for moving money and information. Still every delivery expert in the U.S. doomed Federal Express to failure because they said people will not pay a fancy price for speed and reliability. Fred smiled and said what they are willing to pay for is “peace of mind.” FedEx has become the model for delivery systems all over the world.
If you survey the history of science, it is apparent that most individuals who have created radical innovations did not do so simply because they knew more than others. Charles Darwin is a good case in point. He came back from the Beagle voyage and displayed his famous Galapagos specimens in London. Within six months of his return, most of the top naturalists in Britain had seen Darwin’s Galapagos finches and reptiles, and hence the crucial evidence that converted Darwin to evolution (and that we now consider the textbook case of evolution in action). None saw the connections.
John Gould, who was one of the greatest ornithologists of the nineteenth century, knew far more about Darwin’s Galapagos birds than Darwin did. Gould corrected numerous mistakes that Darwin had made during the Beagle voyage, including showing Darwin that a warbler was, in fact, a warbler finch and other birds that Darwin had not recognized as being part of the same finch family. Darwin was stunned by this and other crucial information that he received from Gould in March of 1837, and Darwin immediately became an evolutionist.
The strange thing is that Gould did not. He remained a creationist even after The Origin of Species was published. Hence the man who knew more saw less, and the man who knew less saw more. This is a classic example of the expert (John Gould) looking at nature for years and not being able to make the connections because of his long held hypothesis. Whereas Darwin looking at nature with no hypothesis made the connection immediately.
Consequently, Charles Darwin who knew less saw more than John Gould who knew more but saw less.