I recently had the pleasure of reading Richard Dawkins’ River Out of Eden. I haven’t spent time with Dawkins since reading his influential The Selfish Gene two decades ago. In both books, Dawkins explores the ramifications of a DNA-centric view of natural selection. Begin with the premise that bodies are just DNA’s way of making more DNA, and the consequences are plentiful, fascinating — and very helpful in understanding how businesses operate, a subject we’ll explore in future columns.
Dawkins is, among other things, a modern Sir Thomas Huxley, who joyfully and convincingly demolishes the arguments of those who reject evolutionary theory. In Eden he takes particular pleasure in demolishing the intellectual sin of what he calls “Argument from Personal Incredulity” (API).
API begins with an accurate statement: “I don’t see how that could be possible.” The implication — that because you don’t see how it can work, it can’t work — replaces logic with a sizable dose of arrogance.
Arrogance? ‘Fraid so. If it’s evolution, API means your inability to figure it out outweighs lifetimes of hard work and deep thought by thousands of geniuses who have researched, modified, refined and extended Darwin’s work over more than a century. Ah, what did they know, anyway?
Natural selection is one thing. If you don’t feel like accepting this thoroughly researched scientific theory, that’s your privilege. The problem is, plenty of managers apply API to their day-to-day decision-making. How about you?
Business is as filled with interesting ideas as a Greek restaurant is with savory vittles. Should you augment financial statements with a balanced scorecard? Perhaps you should start calculating “Economic Value Added” (EVA). On a technical note, there’s the potential for use-case analysis to replace traditional methodologies.
You walk a fine line when you evaluate new ideas. Accept them all and you’re following the fad of the month. Reject them all and you invite stagnation.
It’s tempting to apply API, embracing what fits your biases while rejecting the rest as unworkable. Ever say, “It doesn’t work that way in this company,”? It’s API — you’ve decided it can’t work because you don’t personally understand how it can. Then there’s the popular, “It’s a great theory, but …” Ever wonder what would have happened if Franklin Delano Roosevelt had said that to Albert Einstein?
Okay, both API and automatic acceptance of the experts are wrong. What’s right?
The first step in resolving this dilemma is simply to match new ideas to your top priorities. At any given moment, a good leader will be sponsoring between one and three high-level goals — significant changes that will make a real difference to the company. Screen out as interesting but unimportant, or maybe file away for future use, all except those ideas that can help you achieve your current goals.
Next, assess how widely each idea has been tested.
This assessment shouldn’t drive your choice, just your method of evaluation. A new and untested idea, for example, may be just what you need. Analyze it closely, though. Great ideas live or die in the details, and in the absence of wide real-world use you’ll have to figure them out yourself.
Many of the most highly hyped ideas have been applied in only one, or maybe just a few, companies. In these cases it’s the glowing descriptions of success that call for scrutiny. Sometimes what looks like success on the surface is really a glowing story of how great everything is going to be someday. Or the success is real enough, but the great idea isn’t what caused it. Or you may be reading a history written by the survivors. Regardless, make sure you understand the circumstances of each success before you decide to replicate them yourself.
Then there are ideas that have been widely deployed and are generally accepted. Should you just accept them too and put them into practice?
Since this column challenges popular, widely accepted ideas on a regular basis, that clearly isn’t the right answer. But what is?
Tune in next week to find out.
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