Physics and Ideation: When Does A Breakthrough Idea Become An Acceptable Idea?

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?

Breakthrough ideas challenge the status quo. Often the status quo does everything it can to brick over the door your idea is trying to open. The idea of entanglement emerged from quantum theory and challenges relativity’s restriction on faster than light travel. 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.

  1. Have an idea
  2. Test the idea
  3. Measure the results 
  4. 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? 

I know the list is longer than that. Be Bold.

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14 Responses to Physics and Ideation: When Does A Breakthrough Idea Become An Acceptable Idea?

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Fred, Thought experiments in business? Absolutely! Why not start with the most ridiculous idea possible and work backwards? You might find something that sounds impossible at first blush is not impossible at all. As I’m sure you know, many of the ideas (all of them?) that you bullet point at the end of your post are actually being done.

    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..Book Review – World Wide Rave, by David Meerman Scott

    • Brad, as I started this post I was heading in a different direction when I ran across Einstein’s love of thought (gedanken) experiments and realized how powerfully they could fight the urge to dump an idea simply because it seemed outrageous. As you say the exercise can make the impossible seem plausible. As far as the list at the end, I love them cause they seem so outrageous and yet I think they are all real enough. (I had meant to link them out, and probably still will, but ran into my own self imposed deadline) The angry comments riff is a variation straight from your recent post on business blogs being a base for business operations…(now linked.)

  2. Andrew says:

    Fred,

    A brilliantly written discussion.

    I love some of your expressions here:

    “you have to open to being wrong about the other guy being wrong,”

    “the status quo does everything it can to brick over the door that your idea may be trying to open.’

    I don’t know if this is true or not, but I remember hearing at a seminar about fifteen years ago that when Walt Disney had a new business idea, he would explain the idea to twenty his advisers. Apparently, unless at least nineteen of the advisers considered the idea to be insane, he would ditch the idea.

    Again, let me stress, I don’t actually know whether or not this story is actually true, it’s just a story that I heard from a speaker at a seminar.

    With regards to testing the idea, the concept of thought experiments which you refer to sounds like common sense to me. In some cases, as you say, physical experiments may not be possible. But at least you can obtain some gauge as to the likelihood of the success or otherwise of an idea by running through some of the more likely scenarios. As a result of this process, you can arrive at an educated guess about the likely impact which your proposed course of action might have in each of the scenarios which you identify.

    Andrew’s last blog post..Somali pirates – armed guards not the answer

    • I love Walt Disney. Not only did he go against what ‘everybody’ thought over and over again, he often had to bet the entire company, his home and more to get things done. I don’t recall hearing the 19 executive’s story before, but it certainly sounds in character from what I have read and I’ll be heading off in search hoping it’s true. It’s so easy to look a successful idea and have the thought “duh, that’s obvious” and forget how against the grain the whole concept was when launched. Folks thought Disney was mad trying to make a feature length cartoon, and yet, it seemed to work out in the end.

      A lot of folks play ‘what if’ games in business, we’re taught them in business school after all. What struck me about the idea of a thought experiment in physics is that they get written up, recorded, analyzed, and so are there to refer to in the future. I don’t think business, or many creative enterprises, are very good at capturing and referring back to this kind of intellectual property. It could be important if a critical assumption changes – the entire thought experiment that sent you down one path could all of a sudden have a different conclusion.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Andrew.

  3. LaVonn says:

    Great post. One of the things that organizations get caught up in is the linear “chain of command.” A great organization has many paths for an idea to take for examination and consideration. For managers at any level, they have to let go of the idea that only one person needs to know and that is their boss.

    • Interesting how an ‘open’ network, as found in some academic circles, can shake up a chain of command. If information is distributed, then challenges and new ideas can come from unexpected quarters and gain momentum without permission. Truth is, that’s basically what happens in a capitalist system when an upstart company or entrepreneur comes along and rips apart an established market. Most of the time the old guard sees the train coming but their reaction is to duck rather than get on board.

  4. Bill Welter says:

    Fred,
    I love the concept of “stress testing” ideas. If more people did this we just might see a shift from mediocre-at-best ideas toward a bit of brilliance.
    Bill

  5. Andrew says:

    Fred,

    No problem, my pleasure.

    And thank you for your thoughtful comments and discussiion on my blog. Much appreciated.

    Andrew’s last blog post..Somali pirates – armed guards not the answer

  6. Pingback: Physics and Ideation: Creativity and Mismatched Socks – Frog Blog

  7. Kay Plantes says:

    As an economist and business strategy professional, I remind leaders that in today’s economy, the status quo is not safe. Commoditization is the underlying current of our economy. If you do not evolve your offering and business model, you risk being pulled over the waterfall where only the lowest cost companies end up floating. When leaders understand this dynamic, they become of necessity more open to ideas. What holds leaders back from being open to ideas is the assumption that the status quo is safe. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Kay Plantes’s last blog post..Strategic Leadership in Fearful Times

    • Bill Welter says:

      Kay,
      Good point — the status quo is a terrible place to hide! When we come out of this current crisis we will see the damage done to companies who hunkered down and did nothing.
      Bill

    • Kay, I like the waterfall metaphor. Long falls and sinking are things most managers can grasp the need to avoid :) It would be interesting to know if after such a discussion any decided to just embrace the low cost/commodity strategy rather than try and go against the current?

      @Bill – More reason for your Radar?

      • Bill Welter says:

        Fred,
        Yes, this is one of those things leaders should anticipate. The edge of the water falls is too late and takes too much effort. All the more reason to think about the edge of the radar screen.
        Bill