How innovators negotiate entrenched mental models. Lessons from Thomas Edison

Innovation, the driving force behind progress, often faces a formidable adversary: entrenched mental models. These cognitive frameworks shape our understanding of the world and can become barriers to the acceptance of breakthrough ideas. Managing the dynamic between innovation and prevailing mental models is the innovator’s challenge. Thomas Edison’s promotion of electric lighting over gas provides an example of how this challenge was successfully met.

In 1878, Thomas Edison embarked on a revolutionary journey to create the incandescent light bulb. By September 4, 1882, he introduced it to the world, along with the intricate power generation and distribution system that accompanied it. However, Edison’s groundbreaking innovation was met with intense skepticism and criticism. Even British scientists, after careful consultation, dismissed the feasibility of commercial incandescent lighting. Edison was accused of displaying ‘casual ignorance’ about electricity and dynamics. Despite such opposition, within just fourteen years, Edison’s system replaced a deeply entrenched gas infrastructure, illustrating a remarkable transformation from a seemingly implausible innovation to a thriving institution. How did Edison overcome such odds?

The Strategy Behind Edison’s Success

Had Edison relied solely on the technical advantages of his innovation, he would likely have failed, considering the prevailing dominance of the existing technology. Many innovators fall into this trap, underestimating the challenge of ushering in change. Innovation is a challenging and risky endeavor, especially when it defies established mental models. Radical ideas often appear incomprehensible, useless, or even detrimental to potential users. However, acceptance hinges on situating the innovation within and distinguishing it from dominant mental models, as users judge the innovation against these models.

An illustrative example lies in Edison’s strategic approach. While gas lighting produced a yellowish, flickering flame equivalent to a 12-watt bulb, electricity offered far superior illumination. Yet Edison intentionally limited his bulbs’ brightness to mimic the gas lighting’s ambiance, ensuring a seamless transition that aligned with the prevailing technology. Additionally, Edison chose to bury his power lines underground, resembling the infrastructure of gas and water lines rather than telegraph wires, for a sense of familiarity. By producing electricity centrally, akin to established gas companies, Edison introduced a lighting system that felt recognizable to the public.

The Compromise of Strategy

Edison’s strategy, however, raised a dilemma. In striving to align with existing mental models, an innovator risks diluting the innovation’s true value. Balancing this tension requires careful compromise – emphasizing a few distinctive aspects while concealing others. This need for compromise extends beyond innovators to all strategists. Differentiation is essential for a company’s existence, but it must also conform to the institutional context shaped by customs, laws, and mental models. Early-stage firms often differentiate significantly, but as they evolve, pressures push them to conform. This conformity may enhance efficiency but erode creative capacity, jeopardizing differentiation.

For entrepreneurs, the peril lies in excessive differentiation that resists crucial compromises, hindering acceptance of their innovation. Established firms, conversely, face the risk of succumbing to institutional pressures, relinquishing their distinctiveness. Maintaining singularity amidst these pressures is vital to evade the decline that befalls many formerly innovative companies. Edison’s journey underscores the strategic balance between innovation, conformity, and differentiation.

🇫🇷 French version of this article here.

➕ On mental models and innovation, read How mental models block innovation: The case of Alzheimer’s disease. On the entrepreneurial process of creating a new product, read Effectuation: How Entrepreneurs (Really) create new products, new organizations and new markets.

🔍 Source: Andrew B. Hargadon & Yellowlees Douglas (2001) When Innovations Meet Institutions: Edison and the Design of the Electric Light, Administrative Science Quarterly, 46.

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