Humans are the only species that can develop creative ideas. Our evolved brain is our best ally in the search for novel solutions.
Unfortunately, the human brain is also the greatest enemy of innovation. But not necessarily for the reason you might believe.
We read a lot about “yeah, buts” killing innovation. That is, people finding all of the reasons why a new idea won’t work. Although this might stop a good idea from coming to fruition, the only cost is opportunity cost; no real money or time is invested after the initial ideation.
The more troubling human phenomenon, as it relates to innovation, is the “wow, this is a great idea” response.
Of course the idea might indeed be great. But when you get attached to an idea, “confirmation bias” kicks in. This is when your brain looks for evidence to support your beliefs, to the exclusion of everything else.
For example, you have an idea for a new product. You gather data. You do research. You develop spreadsheets. And in the end, all of your evidence convinces you that you have a winner.
But do you? Maybe not.
There are two things at work that might adversely impact your decision-making ability.
Because you believe so strongly in your ideas, you may inadvertently never look for refuting evidence. Think about it. When building a case for your idea, you almost solely focus your energies on finding the reasons why it will work. But how much time do you spend playing the devil’s advocate?
But there is a more sinister and subtle impact of confirmation bias. Even when presented with disproving evidence, you might subconsciously ignore it.
There was a great study done on behalf of the U.S. Army to look at the impact of confirmation bias.
Researchers Martin A. Tolcott and F. Freeman Marvin gave trained U.S. Army intelligence analysts a battlefield scenario and asked them to determine the enemy's most likely avenue of approach and their level of confidence. Later, analysts were given three updated intelligence reports, each which contained some items that supported their hypotheses and others that disproved them.
They were then asked to rate each information item in terms of the degree to which it supported or contradicted their hypothesis. Although there was significant evidence that disproved their initial beliefs, the new information somehow increased their confidence levels. The researchers found that “confirming evidence was weighed significantly higher than disconfirming evidence.”
Sadly, innovations fail so often because we unknowingly ignore or invalidate evidence that does not support out beliefs.
Scoot Cook, founder of Intuit, brilliantly said, “For every one of our failures, we had spreadsheets that looked awesome.”
When fleshing out a new idea through data analysis or experimentation, be sure to gather as much information as you can that refutes your hypotheses. Pull together the business case for why you should NOT pursue the concept.
Then, make sure you give equal weight to the disproving evidence. Because this is not always easy to do, you may want to use an unbiased third party who does not have a vested interest in the idea, yet has a deep understanding of the marketplace.
Because organizations do not have unlimited resources, it is critical to focus your efforts on the innovations that have the greatest chance of commercial success. When you are sensitive to the impact of confirmation bias, you will be better at deciding which ideas to pursue…and which ones to kill.
Stephen Shapiro is the author of Personality Poker: The Playing Card Tool for Driving High Performance Teamwork and Innovation (Penguin Portfolio). You can read over 500 articles at SteveShapiro.com, play the free Personality Poker video game, or follow him on Twitter.
Image credit: Sebastien Wiertz