Unleashing the innovative potential of the Outsider – Insights from the Quest for Longitude at Sea
How an 18th century scientist’s success in cracking a problem that had defeated many in the established scientific order could be instructive for modern innovators seeking to break into a market.
It is well-known that innovations with the potential to subvert the established order of a given market are often promoted by figures who reside at the margins of that field, or even outside of it. Yet the ‘outsider’ position that helps them pursue innovations which depart from prevailing social and cognitive categories also hampers their ability to obtain support and recognition for them. They lack crucial markers of credibility, social ties to insiders, and expert authority. How then can outsiders stake out some ground on the insiders’ own turf when their claims to novelty clash with the status quo?
In the study Deconstructing the outsider puzzle: The legitimation journey of novelty, Simone Ferriani, Professor at Cass Business School and Bologna University, together with Gino Cattani, Professor at NYU, employ a historiographic approach to trace a story of outsider-driven innovation that unfolded throughout a large portion of the 18th century. In 1714, a few years after the Scilly naval disaster claimed the lives of up to 2,000 seamen, the British Parliament offered a huge financial reward to stimulate a solution to the problem of longitude, and to ultimately improve navigation at sea. Although many of the brilliant minds of the day engaged in the problem in the years following, it was an outsider who eventually solved it. His name was John Harrison – a self-taught craftsman of humble origins – and with the invention of the marine chronometer he challenged the leading academic community with his novel approach, and beat them to the goal.
Drawing on the story of John Harrison, the research highlights some key points of how contemporary outsiders can succeed in their efforts to promote their innovative work.
Reframe your initial disadvantages: outsider-driven innovations typically fail to gain recognition because the outsiders are unable to mobilise the necessary resources or persuade powerful incumbents to support their efforts to instigate change. Harrison himself spent forty seven years striving to solve the longitude problem, encountering many setbacks on the way. Yet he did not lose hope or confidence and reframed his disadvantages as sources of meaning and motivation.
Leverage your positional advantages: being on the outside “looking in” frees outsiders from the norms and expectations of insiders, and sets them at a certain social distance from others in the field. Harrison’s outsider’s perspective gave him the freedom to explore solutions to the longitude problem in an unconventional away. His lack of formal, conventional training may explain why many of his ideas differed from the received wisdom of the time. Yet his unconventional thinking yielded success.
Understand audience heterogeneity: different audiences use different evaluation criteria. What does not appeal to one audience may appeal to another. Harrison’s efforts would have been in vain had it not been for the varying dispositions of his heterogeneous audiences. Whereas the astronomer community endorsed the astronomical lunar distance method, the navy and politicians preferred a proprietary technology that was easier to use. This discrepancy in expectations amongst multiple audiences affords the opportunity for outsiders to select niches in which they can satisfy certain expectations while being shielded, at least temporarily, from others.
Refuse to be deterred by rejection: outsiders often face stern opposition from those intent on defending the status quo. Coping with this level of resistance requires stamina, fervour and a degree of visionary obsession. Harrison himself displayed a tenacity bordering on fanaticism. Not only did he obstinately experiment with the marine clock for over 40 years, making various versions of it and testing it in multiple trials at sea, but he also devised and circulated contentious and accusatory texts against those who opposed him. His stubbornness and refusal to be cowed were part of his success.
Translation matters: outsiders are unlikely to master the vocabulary needed to engage insiders with elaborate rhetoric. Therefore, they must engage in a process of “translation”. In other words, they must try to frame their novel ideas in a way their target audiences can understand. As a self-taught man, Harrison struggled to express himself clearly in writing or to communicate his ideas to the astronomer community. To overcome this shortcoming, he relied on people who could speak the insiders’ language and who were sufficiently familiar with his own language to be able to translate for him. He received help from eminent figures such as Royal Society Fellows and even the King himself.
Look for and exploit available ‘entry ports’: one of the most crucial problems outsiders face is how to gain an ‘entry port’ into an audience’s attention. As outsiders lack status, insiders do not regard them worthy of their time and attention. Unless audiences are exposed to sufficient stimulus, outsiders’ innovative efforts are unlikely to be noticed. In the quest for longitude, the Scilly disaster was the stimuli that produced this attention enabling effect. It catapulted the longitude problem into the public sphere, raising an unparalleled level of attention across multiple constituencies. Harrison exploited this to transcend the constraints of his outsider position and gain an ‘entry port’ to the longitude arena.
Evidence tells us that the very traits that put outsiders at a disadvantage within established occupational structures and categorical systems are often exactly what is required for exceptional entrepreneurial achievements in art, science, and business. These traits may transform outsiders into outliers: high impact actors outside of the norm, residing at the tail of distribution, and able to change our expectations about what is possible. By understanding the conditions and forces shaping this transformative journey, innovators can learn how to use it to their own advantage.
The original, full article “Unleashing Outsiders’ Innovative Potential – Insights from the Quest for Longitude at Sea” is available for download at the link below.
The research paper Deconstructing the outsider puzzle: The legitimation journey of novelty is also available for download below.