What do we call this phenomenon?

I’m sure there is a name for the phenomenon described below, but I can’t find it! Any ideas? This page will evolve as people suggest solutions.

I can use my mobile phone, but when I upgrade, I have a temporary loss of competence. The keypad feels a bit different, so my fingers don’t remember. The same old functions are still there, but they are stored in a different place, so I can’t find them. Then there are new “improved” functions that I don’t understand at all. All these things will help me eventually if I persevere with the new phone, but in the meantime I am suffering an ‘innovation setback’ and have become temporarily deskilled and incompetent as a result of the upgrade.

This same phenomenon that I have temporarily dubbed ‘innovation setback’ happens all over life – with computer software, with moving house, with changing my car.

What makes a good theory?

Robert Boyle (1627-91) explained that a good theory should satisfy the following criteria:

  • It be consistent with itself and at least be consistent with the rest of the phenomena it particularly relates to, and does not contradict any other known phenomena of nature, or any manifest physical truth.
  • It be not precarious, but have sufficient grounds in the nature of the thing itself or at least be well recommended by some auxiliary proofs.
  • It be the simplest of all the good ones we are able to frame, at least containing nothing that is superfluous or impertinent.

Theories and models are thinking tools that have both strengths and weaknesses:

  • They help us explain by bringing us together through a shared story and engaging newcomers, but they can suppress alternatives.
  • They can make us rigorous by exposing hidden assumptions and helping us work through the steps of the model, but they can make us lazy
  • They can give new viewpoints and fresh insights, but they have a limited shelf life and ignore complexity
  • They can help us choose what to focus on and what to stop doing, but they can reinforce power.

So, with these things in mind, we set off in search of a name or theory that covers the main features of this phenomenon as simply as possible.

Is it schematic processing?

Psychologists who have studied resistance to change have noticed that we struggle to process vast amounts of new information and so resort to schemas – shorthand assumptions that things in the future will function in the same way as things we have encountered in the past. This means that we make a superficial assessment of a new situation, fit it into a category that we have ecountered before and then treat it in the standard way assigned to this category. Oreg has shown that people who make a lot of use of schematic processing struggle with new tasks but excel in the performance of routine tasks.

This explanation helps if we add an element of learning into the mix. After all, in true innovation setback, as time goes on, we gradually learn the new routine and this begins to interfere with the old skills. In this intermediate time, our fingers have partly learnt the new key positions on the upgraded phone and so when we turn back to the old one, this new behaviour interrupts the old patterns, and so we are less competent with both the new and the old phone than we were before the upgrade. So the theory of schematic processing has some value, but does not fully describe the phenomenon and so we must keep looking.

Is it Unconscious Incompetence?

In 1969, Martin Broadwell proposed a four-stage process by which learners move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence and then on to conscious competence and finally unconscious competence. So the toddler is unaware of their inability to drive a car; the teenager on their first driving lesson is conscious of their incompetence; the newly qualified driver is competent but acutely aware of deploying their newfound skill at each manoevre; and the experienced driver gets to work each day without being particularly aware of their skill in negotiating the journey.

This learning framework applies to our question in the sense that upgrading my mobile phone delivers a setback from unconscious competence to conscious incompetence. However, it does not account for the longterm outcome, that the upgrade will eventually deliver an increase in working competence, once I become familiar with the phone’s improved and new functions.

Is it Switching Cost?

Economists, beginning with Professor Paul Klemperer, have approached this too, but from a slightly different angle. They have investigated brand loyalty or why people stick with one supplier, and considered the psychological, financial, risk, social and behavioural cost of switching. This places a spotlight on the switching point – the time spent filling in forms to obtain the new phone, the higher rental charges and cost of the handset, the trouble involved in notifying friends of the new number.

While this theory does recognise the learning period in which the user pays the price of innovation in frustration and incompetence, it again does not attend to the ultimate gain in enhanced efficiency once the transition period is over.

Is it Task-Switching?

Meanwhile, psychologists have taken an interest in task-switching (sometimes called set-switching) which is the ability to unconsciously shift attention between one task and another, and cognitive shifting, which is the ability to move the focus of conscious attention from one object to another. When presented with a pair of alternating tasks A and B, choosing a sequence of ABA reduces the accuracy and performance of A, in comparison with sticking at the task in an AAA format.  This shows us that any change is costly in terms of efficiency, slowing us down, even at the level of unconscious processes. 

But studies of task-switching tend to focus on simple tasks that are frequently repeated, rather than the complex mix of frequently used and occasional tasks that is needed to competently manipulate a mobile phone or a new piece of software. We might expect that these tasks generate a great deal more setback, frustration and incompetence.

Is it Neo-Luddism?

In the early nineteenth century the followers of Ned Ludd smashed new knitting frames in an attempt to preserve their traditional jobs, thus violently pursuing their belief that technological innovation will harm rather than help. Their philosophical descendents, the neo-Luddistes, including Chellis Glendinning, argue that widespread innovation will deplete natural resources, increase inequality and fragment community.

This sociological theory may help us to understand why some people are more reluctant to embrace the proposed innovation, but does not consider the subjective experience of enhanced task performance that eventually ensues from adopting the innovation.

Is it Late Adopters?

Management theorists have spotted early adopters and first followers who are eventually followed by the late adopters, leaving the traditionalists who never take up the innovation. These ideas help us recognise that the costs of adopting innovation vary depending on the social and societal context. For example, once support for outmoded software is switched off, some traditionalists find themselves forced to upgrade.

This theory pays little attention to the experience of some late adopters and traditionalists which is a permanent reduction in competence, as they never actually acquire the skill to use the upgrade that has been forced upon them.

Is it yips or Lost Move Syndrome?

Some athletes suddenly lose the skill to perform and this has been termed the yips (originally applied to golfers losing the ability to putt) or Lost Move Syndrome (originally trampolinists ‘forgetting’ how to perform a particular move.) This is widely reported but poorly understood, and may be related to the sustained demand for intense coordination of physiological functions or to psychological pressures.

This analytic frame sheds light on the significance of the competence that is subject to setback. For example, a new computer keyboard is fun to play with during a holiday and may attract little stress-related functional setback. If the keyboard was introduced a day before a report was due to be submitted it could render the author entirely unable to deliver on time. The writer would find themsleves in a vicious spiral by which minor impairments in competence led to stress, reduced ability to learn and amplication of error.

So these theories help to describe some aspects of innovation setback but not the whole picture. Perhaps other approaches have gone further.