Rethinking the concept of ‘outliers': Why nonexperts are better at disruptive innovation

[This post is part of a series produced for VentureBeat by Singularity University.]

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at something, whether it’s playing the guitar, charting the stars, or writing software code. In his landmark book Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell looks at why certain people are successful and postulates that, among other things, a combination of circumstances and the ability to become expert at something produces truly exceptional people and ideas.

That’s an interesting thesis on the part of Gladwell, and perhaps true in the past, but in today’s world of growing exponential technologies, I beg to differ.

I believe the people who will come up with creative solutions to solve the world’s biggest problems —  ecological devastation, global warming, the global debt crisis, and distribution of dwindling natural resources, to name a few — will NOT be experts in their fields. The real disruptors will be those individuals who are not steeped in one industry of choice with those coveted 10,000 hours of experience, but instead, individuals who approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge, and opportunities.

And while experts will have a part to play in solving today’s looming crises where incremental evolution is needed, I believe that non-expert individuals will drive disruptive innovation. Here’s why.

Myopic Thinking 

Sure – there will always be a need for experts, who will continue to drive steady incremental advancements in fields such as biotechnology, environmental sciences, or information technology.  But the best ideas come from those not immersed in the details of a particular field. Experts, far too often, engage in a kind of myopic thinking. Those who are down in the weeds are likely to miss the big picture. To my mind, an expert is in danger of becoming a robot, toiling ceaselessly toward a goal but not always seeing how to connect the dots.

The human brain, or more specifically the neo-cortex, is designed to recognize patterns and draw conclusions from them. Experts are able to identify such patterns related to a specific problem relevant to their area of knowledge. But because non-experts lack that base of knowledge, they are forced to rely more on their brain’s ability for abstraction, rather than specificity. This abstraction — the ability to take away or remove characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics — is what presents an opportunity for creative solutions.

Innovation and Information in Abundance

I also believe that the value of expertise is diminished in a world dominated by two trends: the accelerating pace of innovation and the ubiquity of information. Today, technology moves at such a rapid pace that it is nearly impossible to keep up. With technological advances occurring at breakneck speed, expertise is obsolete within five to ten years.  Think of all the industries turned on their heads by Internet disintermediation, whether it was book and magazine publishing, the printing industry, the recording industry, or retail sales. MySpace rose and fell from grace as the world’s leading social network in less than five years, and pundits already question whether the era of Facebook, with its more than 900 million active users, is over.

The digital revolution has also meant a revolution in access to information. This puts more power and knowledge into the hands of non-experts. Open-source encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and search engines such as Google and Bing, which people can tap into anytime and anywhere via computers and smartphones, put a world of knowledge at our fingertips at a lower cost than ever before. Granted, they alone don’t make us experts – but they give us access to information in abundance, giving us a greater base from which to “think big.”

Some of the most inspiring and innovative minds I know are such disruptors. Take Elon Musk, a fellow trustee at the X-PRIZE Foundation. The South African-born engineer and entrepreneur has never hesitated to venture into new waters where he had no industry expertise but felt he could make a difference. The former founder of PayPal, is now CEO and CTO of SpaceX, a private company sending cost-effective space launch vehicles and rockets into space, and is co-founder and head of product design at Tesla Motors, where he led development of the electric vehicle Tesla Roadster.

The goal must be to expand ourselves beyond one field of focus and use our improved access to information to solve the very real and extreme economic, environmental and resource challenges we face as an interconnected, global society. I believe the time is now, before our looming crises bring us to the brink of destruction, to embolden those disruptive individuals to help innovate our way out of the significant challenges our planet faces today.

What do you think?

Naveen Jain is an entrepreneur and philanthropist and founder of World Innovation Institute, Moon Express, iNome, and Infospace. He is a trustee of Singularity University and X Prize foundation. You can follow him on Twitter: @Naveen_Jain_CEO.