Scientific Paradigms and Disruption

An excerpt from my academic journal.

I compared the disruption of paradigms—something that embodies a conceptual framework in which we perceive the world (Chalmers, 1978) with how a start-up functions by finding anomalies and solving a problem that no one had considered before.


This work is pragmatic because the Falmouth Launchpad program is a study on applied research — due to the fact that the course has a practical business component built-in. I find it interesting that a schism exists between corporate managers who typically lead with experience, and researchers who study business science. Tranfield et al say this ‘relevance gap’ would be unthinkable in any other profession (Saunders, et al., 2006, p. 8). This led me to study further if the art of disruption and innovation can be taught.

Kuhn theories state that science develops through cycles of paradigm—crisis—revolution, which has a long history of disruption (Chalmers, 1978, p. 108). It’s difficult to look outside the current paradigm and find innovation, unless you come across an anomaly that bring crisis.

There is a rich qualitative and quantitative history and tradition of science, which is enriched each time the paradigm is transfigured. This applies to entrepreneurship too, which has a long tradition of business practices. Perhaps there are many lessons to learn in how business evolved, as much as learning from academic research in how businesses function optimally. Software and microelectronics might be new inventions, but innovation is a constant force. While science is often redefined during crisis, entrepreneurship is not always driven by crisis; however, great innovation has previously come from war, or from humanitarian crisis, when the need for a solution is large enough.

In this report, I will compare the disruption of paradigms—something that embodies a conceptual framework in which we perceive the world (Chalmers, 1978, p. 118) — with how a start-up functions by finding anomalies and solving a problem that no one had considered before, or doing something innovative that the previous paradigm hadn’t been able to conceive of before. Throughout the document, I’ll also apply an understanding of project management methodologies and how they affect the process of innovation, risk management, failure and flexibility.

And as is the case, most disruptive start-ups seem simple and clear on reflection, almost obvious. A disruptive idea comes from rethinking how we solve existing problems, or rather—the best ideas appear simple because they are simple to communicate and share with others (Berkowski, 2017, p. 53). This simple idea is a component of virality, a meme (Dawkins: a unit of cultural transmission) which thrives on our built-in human desire to share. Yet, no matter how seemingly obvious, these disruptions are always hard to predict in the current paradigm of consciousness we find ourselves in.

In the same fashion as a scientist who needs to understand the current paradigm before he can perform experiments and find anomalies, entrepreneurs need to understand the users and what their current problems are.

Examples of paradigm shifting innovation in business are Henry Ford’s motor car, the shift to low cost airlines, and online financial services. (Bessant & Tidd, 2015, pp. 17-18) These transformational shifts emerge when we have to fundamentally reframe the way business works, and can be triggered by new technologies (i.e. microelectronics), new legal rules, environmental conditions like an energy crisis, and the emergence of new markets.

Other examples of technological disruption in the past include steam power, electricity, and mass transport. (Bessant & Tidd, 2015, p. 19)

We are currently in the midst of one of these market revolutions, which started in 2007 when the iPhone was released. The world’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, only made that fortune in 1916 (Berkowski, 2017, p. 9) Now, in the age of internet and app start-ups, the average time to create a billion-dollar company in seven years. The most impressive results are Instagram & YouTube, who only took two years to reach unicorn status. (Berkowski, 2017, p. 67)

The ascent in technological life cycles are becoming more rapid, and we are experiencing exponential growth. New technologies like A.I. (deep learning) mean that the pace of disruption isn’t slowing down, and it seems we are every accelerating towards a technological singularity. I would even say we are becoming habituated to the rapid rate of innovation.

This newly digitized world makes it easier than ever to reach a large market with billions of users, which is half of the work done of finding a market—all you need to do is create an application that people not only want, but love.

However, there are thousands of apps in the market already, and it seems quite saturated. A disruptive (innovative) idea not only radically solves a problem in a new way, but also helps you rise above the noise. A disruptive idea delivers a wow factor. People talk about that, and people keep using something that ‘wows’ them. The best ones are simple and easy to communicate, and as humans, we love to share, its part of our psychological makeup. (Berkowski, 2017, pp. 51-52)

Another way to rise above the crowd and achieve success, is to create novelty, which also influences how we think about and use products. (Bessant & Tidd, 2015, p. 19) In contract, normal science suppresses fundamental novelties because they don’t belong in the paradigm—it is self-healing process that reinforces the paradigm itself—but as long as a willingness to explore the arbitrary remains (i.e. anti-authority) these novel anomalies will eventually yield their rewards. (Kuhn, 1996, p. 5)

These anti-authoritarians are the “crazy ones” that Steve Jobs spoke of: the misfits and rebels that have the power to change the world and push the human race forward. They don’t listen to authority, rather they need to make their own way in the world. This seems like a critical factor in being able to see past the paradigms that shape the world.

While that statement may only seem like marketing, archetypical inventors such as Edison, Dyson, or Steve Jobs show that entrepreneurship and innovation are cohesive. The Kirton Adaption Innovation (KAI) scale, for example, includes measurements for creativity of individuals, and reliance on rules as part of its metrics. While Intelligence, and Unlearning are also key cognitive traits. Unlearning here refers to the process of eliminating existing behaviours or routines, but seems to link well with how scientists need to see beyond the current paradigm in order to innovate. (Bessant & Tidd, 2015, p. 263)

Normal science on the other hand, repeats experiments in attempts to refine results, but rarely aims to find ground- breaking novelty or beyond imagination, because the foundation of science is based on repeated and reliable experiments, and the results are usually known or predicted in advance. (Kuhn, 1996, p. 35) Kuhn even states, ‘if failure to come near the anticipated result is usually failure as a scientist—then why are the problems undertaken at all?’ The experiments and results are significant only because they add to the scope of science.

Entrepreneurs seem to differ in that they are risk takers by nature. The entrepreneurial spirit does seem to encompass that element of inventor, risk-taker and creative. One who has the courage to go against the status-quo and one who is anti-authoritarian, such that they are to rebel against the current paradigm and turn towards innovation.

In contrast to normal scientists who are risk adverse, start-ups are well designed to handle the risk of new ventures and innovations. Due to the small size it makes inter-team communication easier, as the team is bound together by a shared vision they have a large amount of trust, all of which provides a large amount of flexibility—to adapt to the situation and problems as they arise. (Bessant & Tidd, 2015, p. 24)

The PRINCE2 project management method is a framework suited for large multi-year projects, and although it has a lessons log to avoid mistakes; it has little room for failure and innovation, or for shifting the product specifications to find a better product/market fit. This is because each stage needs approval from a project board. Thus, due to the requirement to uphold the project specifications, and with many levels of management, there is little room for new innovation. If for instance, new technology or trends emerged during the project lifetime, or even if you realise something new during the project due to anomalies (or mastery of the domain of knowledge) that leads to new insights. It is difficult to change the spec during the current stage, and difficult to pivot the project because each stage needs well documented plans. While Lean and Agile methodologies have more room for flexibility and work in shorter stages, which allows for more experiments and failing.

However, the recent Harvard Business Review states that Agile and Lean are in fact not useful for radical innovation, saying they are not good for combating biases that prevent true breakthroughs. These are availability, familiarity, and confirmation biases, which result in us only seeing information related to the status quo, instead of more innovative opportunities that may be just around the corner—it suggests science fiction, analogies and a first principles approach as some of the best paths for breakthrough innovations (Pisano, 2019).

It seems that following agile methodologies alone is not enough. Lean methodology, like Human-Centered Design (HCD) use a function of incremental innovation in their approach — called hill climbing — which is a process of continual testing and refinement, thus over time the bad features in products are modified and fixed, while good ones are kept. (Norman, 2013, pp. 280-282) Norman states that in contrast to incremental change, is radical change, which is the realm of the paradigm shifting ideas. Incremental innovation will rarely bring radical change, however the ability of these methodologies to have room for failure and trying new approaches is what I believe makes them superior, as that continual experimentation allows new anomalies to be detected. Using this hill climbing metaphor, a radical change would be like starting at the base of a new hill, and incremental design would help you explore the best path towards the peak.

Entrepreneurs find success when they create elegant solutions to very big problems that frustrate a lot of people. They do this through a combination of disruptive thinking, solid execution and management of complexity (Berkowski, 2017, pp. 7-8). It often doesn’t happen because of luck. Failure is important to success, successful entrepreneurs learn from their mistakes. (Bessant & Tidd, 2015, p. 13)

Heffernan offers an example of failure in companies, using the 1972 ‘Staines air disaster’ of Flight 548, which transformed the aviation industry and safety standards. The failure in the company culture to share information, speak up about problems and concerns, and isolated working environment was blamed as the failure which caused the accident. From this disaster emerged a new way to work, which emphasised openness, and where mistakes where acknowledged as learning—and shared with others—instead of covered up. (Heffernan, 2015, p. 2) At Torres wine vineyard, they practice sharing mistakes and writing them in a book. Each new recruit needs to read the book, and this simple example of learning from errors sends a powerful message to everyone in the company that ‘everyone makes mistakes.’ (Heffernan, 2015, p. 21)

Another perspective from Harvard Business Review says that it’s a mistake to tolerate all failure, instead only celebrate learning—not failure, only if that gained knowledge can be applied to future designs. The challenge is to have a balance of healthy failure rates, and removing untalented employees—larger innovative companies like Apple or Google can afford the failure on new products, because they already have high standards for only hiring only the best talent. Therefore, experiments are only useful in a highly disciplined working environment, in which experiments are carefully selected for potential learning value. (Furr, et al., 2019)

How does science progress when the schools don’t teach the history of innovation, but rather a concise version of the most popular paradigms? Scientific training is not well designed to help the student cope with the transformation and insight to discover new paradigms. (Kuhn, 1996, pp. 165-166)

In this paper, I’ve also reflected on innovation and how creative and inventive people are most likely to bring new paradigms. Perhaps in business we should also study the history of entrepreneurship and innovation, in order to better equip with an understanding of the spirit of innovation.