Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Deep Knowledge

In the 1968 Olympics, Dick Fosbury would forever change the sport of high-jump. There he won the gold medal using an unheard-of approach: falling backward over the bar. Prior to Fosbury, virtually all athletes jumped face-first, rolling forward over the bar in the air. But Fosbury, age 21 at the time of the Olympics, had since his high-school days been experimenting with a back-first approach. Those years of experimentation finally paid off with the gold medal, after which his "Fosbury Flop" would become the standard approach to the sport.

Fosbury's innovation was the result of "deep knowledge," an understanding of a domain so complete that it can only be gained through a significant investment of time and focused effort.

Many times innovations come from those who have deep knowledge in a particular domain.

Consider Martin McVicar. He invented the swiveling forklift, a product that his Irish company ships today to companies all over the world. McVicar's innovation was possible because he spent decades working with forklifts in tight spaces, experience that helped him come to know the use of the forklift inside out.

Or take Orlando Vargas, who developed an industrial soap made from cactus, which today is sold to businesses all over Mexico. In his case, a degree in chemical engineering gave Vargas the perspective needed to see the possibilities for using cactus when he moved to cactus-rich Baja California Sur from his native Colombia in 2005.

And examples abound if you consider innovations in science and technology. Philosophers of science, particularly Lakatos, argue that scientific progress proceeds through research programs - with knowledge building cumulatively over time.

You're thinking "Barnett says know your stuff." Common Sense. But not so. These days the popular view is just the opposite. Broad knowledge is all the rage, the idea being that by combining knowledge from unrelated worlds we come up with great innovations. The case for broad knowledge is compelling, and the evidence supports the value of broad knowledge (see the work of Lee Fleming). But broad knowledge comes at a price, and its popularity has caused many to underestimate the value of deep knowledge.

When we fully absorb ourselves in a particular domain, investing the years of focus needed to gain deep knowledge, we forgo breadth. But in return we come to know the nuances and background ideas that can help us recognize patterns when they appear - to see opportunities that the dilettante would overlook.

So, yes, know your stuff. But by that, I mean immerse yourself in your area of specialization. Be authentic to your context. See the possibilities that the fair-weather innovators will miss.


For evidence on the importance of deep knowledge among innovating firms, see my paper on the subject.