Imagine fresh foot prints in new-fallen snow. The second person to walk through the area will likely step into most of those same prints. So will the third, and so will everyone else, eventually forming a well-trodden path. What comes before helps to determine what will happen later, step-by-step. This is how Seth Godin describes “path dependence.”
Path dependence describes why history matters (prior footprints), even if it’s not always relevant (imagine taking a meandering path just go avoid “getting all snowy”).
It feels counterintuitive to deviate from a clear path. Hikers use trails, drivers use roads, and we’ve all got our “lanes” at work. Anyone with any modicum of success has developed their path-following discipline. In fact, when we think about deviating from the path, the poster child is literally a child. Yes, we’re talking about those little people who refuse to color within the lines and jump in puddles during walks on rainy days.
We’re not going to say the kids have the “right” idea, but we can say that make a very credible point.
Clayton Christensen describes the two approaches of “follow the footprints” and “jump in puddles” in the formal terms of “sustaining” and “disruptive” models.
Sustaining models reap the rewards of repetition. The costs of deviating are high because they’d risk losing what they perceive they’ve already got. Imagine the responsible adult walking down a rainy sidewalk, carefully avoiding puddles because the “costs” of getting soaked are not worth the “fun” of a good splash. They’ve already got dry socks – why trade that?
Disruptive models deviate from a path, and therefore reap the rewards of spontaneity. The costs of a kid unexpectedly jumping in a puddle are low relative to fun. Unfortunately for the parent in this scenario, they may bear the true cost (“well, whose fault are the soggy socks?!”).
However, once in a while, a little exploration may lead to novel idea that branches off into its own path. Most parents have a good memory or two of getting into a mess with their kids – even if it felt like a bad experience at the time (and vice versa). Disruption is merely the means for exploring those options, understanding that sometimes they’ll be valued differently in hindsight.
What both Godin and Christensen recognize, is that there is an essential task of questioning both the path and our dependency on it. We can’t allow for the paths to enable our blind spots, even if that’s what a well-traveled path is really designed to do – to take the stress away of having to blaze a new trail.
We have to instead study the path that we’re on with the same vigor as we study the paths that others are on, seeking out potential blind spots. There are plenty of puddles, which makes for lots of room to be the first to lay down some footprints.
The future depends on people with soggy socks and snowy shoes.