On the Brink of a Breakthrough?

On the Brink of a Breakthrough?

From the paper “Near Misses in the Breakthrough Discovery Process” by Sen Chai (ESSEC Business School), published in Organization Science, 2017.


It’s hard to imagine a world without antibiotics, x-rays, or wireless communication. These scientific breakthroughs, and countless others, fundamentally and irreversibly altered the paradigm in which we live by advancing our understanding of the world around us. Everyday, a myriad of breakthroughs large and small lay the foundations for advancement, wealth creation, and economic growth for societies and organizations alike.

But how do breakthroughs occur? Can researchers and innovators better equip themselves to make discoveries?

My research looks to gain a complete understanding of the discovery process, and potentially identify factors that will enhance breakthrough success, by focusing on near misses: when a researcher arrives at the brink of a breakthrough discovery, yet fails to take the final steps.

Near misses are in fact part and parcel of the breakthrough discovery process. In most cases, researchers will miss making a breakthrough multiple times before arriving at a final discovery. By focusing on these near misses rather than just the success stories, my research offers a more complete picture of the discovery process. I’ve mapped the progress towards the final breakthrough by looking at the example of RNA interference, a Nobel prize-winning medical discovery made recently enough to enable first-hand interviews with the actors involved in it, and facilitate access to archival data.

Trapped in an Existing Paradigm

Though most studies on breakthrough emergence have not explicitly treated near misses or elaborated on how these mechanisms impede the path to discovery, many have alluded to factors that constrain thinking and increase the risk of a non-breakthrough.

Thomas Kuhn in his seminal 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions first recognized that researchers could be blinded or cognitively limited by habits of mind to think within the confines of recognized views, models and theories. In other words, he argues that once a scientific paradigm is established during the period of normal science, researchers tend to concentrate on extending dominant theories through incremental improvement and often fail to imagine solutions outside that paradigm. Even when divergences occur, in fact, researchers tend to remove discrepancies.

Through my interviews with prominent scientists, I identified three ways in which researchers were likely to miss making a breakthrough discovery:

  1. By failing to notice or recognize anomalies appearing outside predictions of the established paradigm;
  2. By actively resisting possible solutions that were significantly different from those dictated by the paradigm;
  3. By failing to make the link between communities thought to be operating under different paradigms.

The findings suggest that, on the path to discovery, not being able to see outside the prevailing paradigm can lead to near misses at various stages. The first two mechanisms illustrate how paradigms constrain thinking and their effect on near misses at different stages of the research process: the former occurs when researchers are limited within the confines of normal science, while the latter occurs when researchers cannot come to a resolution despite having recognized and identified the anomaly. The third mechanism illustrates how paradigms may also prevent researchers from looking outside of their communities, thereby hindering similar anomalous patterns from being connected and further constraining their thinking.

With this in mind, I’ve identified five strategies that organizations can use to boost their creative breakthrough performance.

Improve research environment

For science-based firms, the potential interventions speak to the design of research environments by providing structural characteristics and policies. To prevent innovators from being restricted by the existing paradigm, organizations can foster the production of groundbreaking discoveries by facilitating cross-boundary research teams.

Encourage teamwork

Internally, firms could institute organizational structures that enable for temporary research teams to be formed based on the expertise required by project or establish rotational programs where researchers could change teams after a certain period of time.

Participate in events

Externally, supporting the attendance of seminars and conferences for researchers enables the exchange of ideas and can also help establish collaborative links with academic laboratories or other firms with complementary know-how.

Focus on diversity

Hiring some researchers with a diverse range of backgrounds and expertise can also foster the diversity and breadth of ideas generated.

Offer incentives

Firms can also provide incentive structures that promote more experimentation in side projects at the fringe by leaving researchers more flexibility and freedom to allocate funding, as well as by establishing evaluation procedures that are more tolerant of early misses.

The purpose of this work was to generate new theory and enhance the current limited understanding of why breakthroughs are missed. Further research could replicate the study in more settings, such as on a list of Nobel discoveries, and verify whether the identified mechanisms are comprehensive. These studies could use improved methods to identify those who missed breakthroughs by using content analysis rather than mere keywords to lessen noise in the definition. 

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