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To Innovate, See More Than You Want to See

One of my favorite nerdy jokes illustrates a point that has my riled up today. Note to all members of PETA and donors to local animal shelters -- no animals were harmed in the making of this joke.

A biologist studying frogs decides to conduct an experiment. On day one, he puts the frog on the floor, and yells "Jump!" The frog jumps, and the scientist diligently records the distance in his experimental notebook: 1.7 meters. [That's about 5 feet, 7 inches for those of you who prefer such things. Scientists like the metric system, so that lends authenticity to the joke.]

On day two, he repeats the experiment, but with a twist. This time, before placing the frog on the floor, he tapes the front legs of the frog tightly to it's body, so that they can't move. Placing the frog on the floor, he again yells "Jump!" This time, the frog is only able to jump 0.6 meters, which is recorded in the notebook. "Hmmm, interesting..." our biologist mutters.

On day three, he repeats the experiment again, this time enrobing the frog in duct tape so that it is unable to move front or back legs. He again places the frog on the floor. He again yells "Jump!" He again records the result: 0.0 meters. And then, he records one final note in his notebook: "Conclusion: frogs with no legs can't hear."

[Pause for laughter to subside]

In addition to providing mild amusement, this little joke provides a wise lesson for all of us, and especially to innovators. Be careful with your conclusions, and be even more careful with the conclusions of others.

Support or Illumination?

This thought popped into my head this morning as I read a friend’s political Facebook post (you know the kind). It presented an article by someone who presented a set of data, and proceeded to draw the political conclusion that you are pretty sure they had firmly cemented in their head well before collecting any data. As my dad has eloquently articulated, “people tend to use information the way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support, rather than enlightenment.”

The problem with the article was that the conclusion was based on an assumption that was not addressed by the data at all. Just as our beloved biologist was assuming that the cause-and-effect relationship of the data was with the frog’s hearing, this social scientist was assuming that their political solution was the cause-and-effect for their data. A very simple counter example proved it otherwise.

So what does this have to do with innovation?

We all have a tendency to be the “drunk on a lamppost,” especially when we have a high degree of ownership for the new goods and services we develop. These projects are our creations. We can start to look at them like our children. And no one wants to be told that their baby is ugly.

But sometimes, our new products are, indeed, ugly. Denying that fact can lead us to poor decision-making, allocating time, energy, and money to creations that have no chance of surviving in the marketplace.

So at the risk of over-extending a metaphor, here are some lessons from the frog joke to take with you into your innovation efforts:

  1. Identify your assumptions (to the best of your ability – frequently, we are all blind to our own assumptions)

  2. Have someone challenge your thinking. Encourage your teams to challenge one another, respectfully. Asking questions like “are you sure?’ or “are there alternative explanations?” helps prevent groupthink. This is especially true if you are a big boss in the organization. If you are, nurture an organizational culture of challenging one another. Nothing will be worse for you than to propagate a culture of “it’s my way or the highway.” By the way, for those who are not big bosses, working in a “my way or the highway” organization – consider taking the highway. It’ll add years to your life and incalculable happiness to your daily experience.

  3. Be a skeptic. Even when you hear that a “scientist” has proven something, maintain some healthy doubt. If you lack the expertise in an area, seek out someone who has that expertise to challenge it for you, like getting a second opinion on a critical health diagnosis. This is most important when the science confirms your beliefs -- that's when you are most likely to be blind to alternatives.

  4. Check your processes for robustness. The biologist had terrible methods that wouldn’t have proven anything, even without the stupidity of the conclusion. Ensure that your processes are well-reasoned and perform well.

  5. Laugh at your errors, learn from them, and grow. Being able to do so will improve your innovative capabilities as much, if not more, than any other suggestion.

More on thinking errors that impact your business coming soon. In the meantime, happy innovating!

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