Many business ideas die as much from neglect as from hostility. Breakthrough concepts are dismissed by influencers who show disbelief when ideas do not fit their current world view. Ideas are left to stew and ripen outside mainstream business thought — only to burst on the scene and disrupt whole economies seemingly out of no-wheresville.
We all have ways of ignoring breakthrough ideas, many demonstrated in The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Rebornby Louisa Gilder. Illustrating the winding road taken by the physics community in understanding entanglement, it shows how even the most brilliant can dismiss, ignore and argue against ideas that seem to break foundational beliefs.
How can you avoid being blindsided by an idea you had all along?
After being identified by Einstein, it took four decades before serious consideration began to be given to the entanglement concept. When you are entrenched in a certain way of thinking, breaking lose can be a painful exercise.
“He said to me, ‘As an older friend, I must advise you against it,’”— Einstein imitating Planck, looked solemn and waved his index finger— “‘for in the first place, you will not succeed; and even if you succeed, no one will believe you.’” The Age of Entanglement by Louisa Gilder. (Conversations in Gilder’s book are manufactured to illustrate concepts, but are based on actual comments and recollections from parties involved.)
Disbelief is healthy, but you have to be open to being wrong about the other guy being wrong. The scientific method provides a pretty straight forward loop to test ideas and review how they hold up, but simple disbelief can short circuit the process.
Niels Bohr’s method of arguing with John Slater is illustrative, “Of course they don’t agree with all yet. But they do agree with a good deal and have no particular argument, except their preconceived opinions, against the rest of it.” Of course, ‘the rest of it’ just happened to be the parts of Slater’s theories that most threatened the platform Bohr was standing on. Bohr wanted Slater to not publish the more controversial aspects.
The scientific method can provide protection against throwing away or forgetting a particularly uncomfortable idea.
- Have an idea
- Test the idea
- Measure the results
- Refine the idea and back to one.
(Fine, grossly simplified, but workable nonetheless.)
How can you test an idea that seems untestable? Thought experiments were a favorite of Einstein and Bohr. They allow you to think through the implications of an idea, even when a physical experiment is not yet possible. These experiments can be as useful for creative ideas as for quantum theories.
When the world seems painfully behind, sometimes a thought experiment can help you see the future.
In business thought experiments can be useful to understand how game-changing an idea may be. In the military war games help to play out scenarios when facts may be difficult to know in advance. The same holds true in business. You can work through what the impact of even the most unlikely events or technologies may be.
Using a version of the scientific method, even when you work with paint and canvas, can give the most far out ideas some time to breath and ripen. By playing crazy ideas through thought experiments with what limited information you have at hand, you avoid disregarding ideas that may have merit. More importantly, you can create a library of stress tested ideas that can be referenced to as conditions on the ground change.
What crazy ideas should you be testing right now?
- Twittering from an operating room?
- Drop consumer packaging?
- Give-up anything resembling an office?
- Encourage angry comments publicly on your website?
- Beam podcasts straight to the brain?
- Reduce selection to one?
- Increase selection to infinity?
- Short-circuit the need for health insurance?
- Put all your classified information in the cloud?
- Don’t charge interest?
- Operate an Open business?
- Print-out your 3-dimensional product at home?
I know the list is longer than that. Be Bold.