Innovation by Death: A Theory

One point from the often referenced, but rarely read, Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn, is true revolutionary progress happens only when a generation dies. That’s right – death drives change. Kuhn mentions this point, but also debates it, and I likely put more faith in it than he did.

Consider how every group of people, from corporations, to universities to families, has a rank of leaders who are the old guard. Having been successful, they have much to lose by adopting change. And even the minority who are hungry and seek change, they are informed by sensibilities of the past, not the future. Their very existence in leadership roles prohibits the next generation, and the ideas of the next generation, from seeing the light of day.  If change is their ultimate goal, it’s likely best served by them quitting and letting the new guard take over.

Kuhn uses examples from of science, and the assumption scientists revel in change. He points out how powerful deans at the great colleges, peer journal reviewers, and the grant providers, all have their guarded theories and philosophies they will defend, literally, to their death. It’s only when the next wave of younger scientists rises into power, and become the new gatekeepers, that philosophical change, and breakthroughs, tend to happen. Or are accepted.

The U.S. Senate, and all governments, are dominated by leaders born decades before the rise, and fall, of fax machines. Obama is the first president in history with an email, and not paper, centric work lifestyle. Many Fortune 500 companies are led by people whose email is printed out for them, or for whom blogs, Facebook and twitter, are, to them, toys for their grand-children.

Anyone born after the rise of the web, or the iPad, has assumptions about the world those born earlier can never have (just as my generation has assumptions about electricity and mobile phones, my parents could never have). This child will never look at a keyboard or a mouse the same way I do. And until she rises into a position of power, power likely yielded to her by the stepping down of an old guard, that worldview will not be in a position to change the world.

In nature, death is the leading cause of life. Everything that lives depends on the death of something in order to grow. When trees fall, some become what are called nurse logs – their decay becomes the basis for the next wave of growth. By falling down and letting light shine through, the future begins.

For managers and leaders of all kinds, perhaps the best way to make progress happen is to get out of the way.

Also see: Innovation by Firing People


18 Responses to “Innovation by Death: A Theory”

  1. Greg Linster

    In economic parlance this process has been dubbed “creative destruction.” It’s widely attributed to Joseph Schumpeter, but I’ve heard erudite scholars date it back to Karl Marx. I think there is a real challenge though because it can be such a cold-hearted process. How do we balance this process and keep a sense of empathy as well? I’m not quite sure and the rest, as they say, is just commentary.

  2. Scott Berkun


    It’s of course not all or nothing. If we killed an entire layer of leaders all at the same time it’d be quite a mess.

    But there is something in spirit here that points out how egocentric we all are when thinking about change. We tend to focus on change where we are at the center of it, and most likely to get credit for it, but that’s narrow and selfish.

    If we really want progress, we have to accept sometimes the best way we can facilitate it is by paving the way for others, or simply getting out of the way.

  3. Christian Augustin

    Mostly right, but not completely, I think. Perhaps I’m myself to old to fully agree (49), but I often get the impression that there are older ones who are looking much further to possible futures (and making them possible) than many of the younger generations. Often enough, the younger ones only think about what is, than about what could be, and therefor are as conservative as most of the older generations.

    Especially with creativity, it’s not always a matter of age (yeah, at some age everyone stagnates, but for many creative people this seams to be rather late).

    Just my 2 EURcent ;)

  4. Sean Crawford

    Scott, in your comment you used the words egocentric and facilitate. I am reminded that what separates a group facilitator from a teacher or manager is that the facilitator has no ego: no agenda for what the group is to learn or decide.
    As a facilitator, I like being in a blessed egoless state; as a person, the less ego I have the wiser I get.
    Someday I will be old AND able to try all this newfangled technology. It is taking me a lifetime to learn!

  5. Simon

    A very Zen posting Scott. To create something new we having to be willing to give up, to lose the old. Our attachment to our old perspectives stop us from having the freedom to permit the new. First, we must empty our cup.

  6. Alan Stanton

    Hi Scott,

    Well, I have read Thomas Kuhn, though admittedly a few years ago. It made a huge impression on me. Not least because I realised that many people using the concept “paradigm shift” hadn’t a clue what it meant.

    Another – for me – valuable piece of learning from Kuhn was to understand that scientists whose theories were disproved were not inadequate, incompetent or misguided. They were doing their best to work with the data and theoretical frameworks they had.

    For example, Galileo was interested astrology, and originally dismissed the idea that the moon caused tides. He was over fifty when he had his public disputes about heliocentrism – not some young firebrand waiting for the older generation to move over.

    So a question: please point me to the section in Kuhn’s book which supports your main point about dying generations.

    And then, please consider an observation by the late Tony Judt about the apparently *cyclical* nature of some economic theories. So what genuinely appears to be an advance or paradigm shift seems later to be a response to particular phases in the economic cycle. (If you haven’t read Judt, you can see him in a video lecture from Remarque Institute. )

    Thanks for your interesting blog posts!

    Alan Stanton

  7. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren

    I have just attended the PSASA’s (Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa) national conference. As I am pretty new to the speaking profession I feel that I may not be entrenched in the way it is supposed to work.

    But my experience is that there may be an old guard that needs to die. An old guard that for instance uses powerpoint as if it is the same as overhead transparencies with just more colour.

    What innovations do you see will happen for speakers once an old guard dies of?

  8. Steve Davies

    Very thought provoking.

    Raises the question in my mind as to whether some of the approaches and reactions to social media on the part of leaders and senior management are due to a fear that social media is the instrument of their demise.

    If that is true shouldn’t we treat social media as a weapon for change rather than a benign tool? That is, to expedite dmise and transformation.

  9. Dhimsy

    Whether for economy or for life there is saying in India that “change is the rule of the universe” so if u do not change with time u end up being all alone. U also realize that u cannot be in conversation with group.

  10. Bob Conner

    I have built an HHO cell and I need it to produce more hydrogen gas. What is it that makes the difference? More/less plates? Thinner/thicker gauge steel? Electrolyte formula? Space between plates? Size of plates? Position of O-rings? Size of water-flow holes? I can’t seem to nail it down! Please can someone who is an expert on this subject help me out! Thank you!! Jules

  11. Mark

    There is an additional dynamic added once Kuhn published “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and that is he made everyone much more aware self-aware of this type of social behavior. Scientists (‘young turks’!) began to challenge the “old school” thinking and authority by citing Kuhn’s studies. Theories and philosophies were no longer blindly accepted because the old school leadership said so. Not that this has eliminated the existing the old guard gatekeepers but I’d suggest it has lessened its authority to a degree and permitted alternative thinking and culture to emerge and even thrive as it didn’t pre-1960s.



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