Between the work we do at Swoop and some big idea startups I’m advising, revolutionary innovation has been top of mind for me recently. That is why the following statement Richard Feynman makes in a lecture about the difficulty of understanding quantum mechanics stuck a deep chord:
So, it will be difficult but the difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from you saying to yourself “but how can it be like that” which really is a reflection of an uncontrolled–but I say utterly vain–desire to see it [quantum mechanics] in terms of some analogy with something familiar. I will not describe it in terms of an analogy with something familiar. I will simply describe it.
– Richard Feynman
Revolutionary innovation often faces substantially bigger challenges than evolutionary innovation not because of the magnitude of change it requires in a real sense but because of the magnitude of psychological change required to accept the possibility of a new reality before it has fully manifested itself. Startups building revolutionary new products and services face the additional challenge of having to convince investors about the possibility of a new reality before they can set out to create it. The typical approach is to draw on analogies to existing solutions, to the current reality. Compare. Contrast. Educate. This sometimes works but, in my experience, it often confuses investors more than enlightens them. Explaining the future in terms of the past works well for small evolutionary steps but if often fails for big discontinuous leaps. What analogy can you draw between a sailboat and steam ship? Between a propeller and a paddlewheel? A hot air balloon and an airplane? A feature phone and the iPhone?
Rather than highlighting the potential of the future, analogies to the past constrain it. Worse, in the minds of investors, these comparisons can set up the wrong benchmarks to evaluate a startup’s progress by, which can hurt the company in later financings. Sometimes, the best strategy is to just tell it like it is and only engage deeply with investors who “get it”, who are willing to suspend their disbelief and imagine a world where the revolutionary innovation has reached critical scale.
Here is Feynman. The quote is at 7:10.