Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What Carl Sagan might have said about innovation

I'm going to reach for one of those grand unifying theory type of thought experiments today, connecting what Carl Sagan said about science with what we believe to be true about innovation.

Sagan had a wonderful way of explaining science.  I especially enjoy what has come to be called the "Baloney Detection" kit.  You can see the entire discussion of the Baloney Detection kit on the wonderful Brain Picking site (which you should visit regularly for its expansive look at a whole host of topics).  Sagan introduced his Baloney Detection kit to help people make decisions about science, but we can also use a lot of his nine tools to ask questions about innovation as well.

Sagan's nine rules, roughly stated, are:

  1. Independent verification of "facts" - no secret knowledge, no opinions
  2. Encourage debate from all perspectives
  3. Arguments from "authorities" carry little weight.  In science there are experts but not authorities.
  4. Test multiple hypothesis rather than selecting the first answer
  5. Don't become overly attached to a hypothesis because it is yours
  6. Quantify whatever is possible.  Vague hypothesis and qualitative reasoning are open to interpretation
  7. Every link in the chain must work
  8. Use Occam's Razor - the simplest answer is usually the best
  9. Test your hypothesis and ensure others can validate it

What would happen if innovators adopted these rules?

Facts not opinion.  First, we'd agree to always share information openly about our ideas.  There would be no secret insight, no preferred perspective, and we'd debate ideas based on the information at hand and the ideas' merit, not on someone's secret knowledge or opinion.  Sagan would suggest that innovation should include research, to gather facts and share those facts, rather than simply based on opinion.

Debate from different perspectives. Next, innovators would work in cross-functional teams to share different perspectives about customer needs, internal capabilities and the challenges that need to be solved.

Openness to new ideas.  Innovators would finally overcome the burden of history and experience.  Too often good ideas are rejected because authority figures reject them, rather than understanding that past experience and information are subject to change and disruption.

Conceiving and testing multiple ideas.  Innovators would understand that experimenting and testing several ideas or hypothesis is important, and would resist the demands to rapidly converge around one idea.

Clearly we could go on , describing how Sagan's rules for evaluating scientific claims can also enlighten how we develop and manage ideas.  Which should suggest a couple of things to innovators and the people who manage them:

  1. Innovation shares a lot of methodology with scientific inquiry, which means it can be taught, and can be managed to some degree
  2.  Innovation is a discipline that can be reduced (to some extent) to a set of practices and "rules" - these are just more elastic than other practices and rules
  3. Sagan's recommendations are good practices regardless of the "discovery" - whether your team is cracking the genome for a gene that causes cancer or exploring customer needs to solve consumer financial issues.  
  4. Past information, experience and the figures that rest on this information (the authorities) often resist new insights and information just at the point where they become irrefutable.  Look no further than Galileo.  Innovators need to understand how to make their case effectively without judgment, and "authorities" (read managers, decision makers and executives) need to learn to look at new ideas with less prejudice and more openness.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:46 AM


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