“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…'” said Isaac Asimov, capturing the importance of maintaining an open mind and following our curiosity. Indeed, many of our most critical developments have come not through incremental steps along a planned development but by questioning our basic assumptions and seeing what lessons come out of it. As Carl Sagan put it,
“We are rarely smart enough to set about on purpose making the discoveries that will drive our economy and safeguard our lives. Often, we lack the fundamental research. Instead, we pursue a broad range of investigations of Nature, and applications we never dreamed of emerge. Not always, of course. But often enough.”
Yet too often we close ourselves off to these discoveries. We avoid investing in the unknown and the risk of unexpected results, preferring to follow familiar and proven paths.
As we push for assured results – and punish delayed gratification – we trade the ability to chance major breakthroughs for the predictable slog of guaranteed incrementalization. And we get behavior that’s derivative, not innovative.
A model that we drastically need to change. Or live with the results.
The Downside of Punishing Risk
In 1975, Senator William Proxmire, a fiscally conscious Democrat from Wisconsin, awarded the first Golden Fleece Award to the National Science Foundation for spending $84,000 on a study on love. Proxmire would continue to award his golden fleeces to those projects he considered to be the “most outrageous examples of federal waste.”
Throughout his 13 years bestowing the award, some of the 168 recipients included studies to compare the aggressiveness of fish and rats after drinking tequila and gin, a study by the Department of Defense to determine if people in the military should carry umbrellas in the rain, and a Department of Justice study to better understand why prisoners want to escape from jail.
It’s easy to get on board with fiscal accountability. No one wants to have their tax money wasted. And Proxmire, who was inducted into the Taxpayers Hall of Fame for his efforts to curtail government spending – yes, apparently there is a Taxpayers Hall of Fame – did succeed in driving greater fiscal scrutiny and restraint.
But it’d be shortsighted to ignore the downside of the Golden Fleece awards. We’re not very good at predicting which projects will be a success versus those that will go nowhere. Yet the potential to be publicly criticized for a failure tells people that they better know the value of their research before they even begin to conduct it.
With that potential threat, who wouldn’t hesitate before pushing in a risky new groundbreaking direction and consider the safer, incremental approach instead?
Uncertainty or Certainty? Unknown or Known?
“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.” – Albert O. Hirschman
In the summer of 1928 a Scottish biologist, known among his friends for being disorderly, was researching bacteria cultures when he failed to clean up his lab before leaving for vacation. When he came back, he found that a number of the petri dishes had grown moldy. Before throwing them out, he discovered the mold in one dish had destroyed the bacteria culture growing there.
It’s easy to see how this research of watching fungus grow on bread and cheese would have been well-suited for a Golden Fleece Award and the associated public criticism. Yet while the timing predated an award from Proxmire, Alexander Fleming’s work was enough to win one from the Nobel Committee.
The mold Fleming found was penicillum, a fungus that grows on bread. It would lead to the development of penicillin, and save the lives of millions of people. After receiving the Nobel Prize for his efforts, Fleming remarked, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”
Fleming’s discovery isn’t unique. Many of our scientific advancements have come from unexpected directions. And many of our greatest findings generated out of ideas that brought heavy initial skepticism.
A Polish woman wanting to sift through tons of African ore, looking for small particles that she believes will glow in the dark. A German scientist who never graduated from high school is looking for invisible magic rays that can show us our skeletons. And an Englishman wants to better understand why fruit falls to the ground.
Yet Marie Curie’s work in discovering radium and polonium yielded great strides in cancer therapy. Roentgen’s efforts to discover x-rays have revolutionized medical diagnosis. And Newton developed laws that drove advances in everything from the Industrial Revolution to space flight.
Many discoveries and developments that not only impact our lives, but characterize the world today, were developed when people were given the opportunity to explore fundamental questions and the freedom to follow their curiosity.
They often didn’t know where their research would take them. They couldn’t have offered guaranteed results or promises of success. And this very aspect was often the key to their success. As Stuart Firestein put it in his book on ignorance,
“Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.”
And our ability to make similar contributions – in our companies and our lives – relies on whether we choose to encourage these behaviors or stifle them.
How Does Your Company Manage Uncertainty?
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” – John Cleese
When an experiment doesn’t work out at your company, how do people react?
It’s not just a question for labs and research facilities. We all perform experiments every day.
Developed a new product feature and tested it with your customer? That’s an experiment. Implemented a new process initiative or improvement? That’s an experiment. Challenged the existing way of doing business by creating something new and maybe better? Yet another experiment.
While we may not be performing these experiments in a controlled lab, every time we take action to test preconceived beliefs, it’s an experiment. And the results often tell us whether we’ve created an environment that encourages innovation or conformity.
So when one of these experiments fail, how does your company respond?
Do people shut down? Close ranks? Ask whose fault it is?
Or do they come together? Try to understand the cause? And see what they can learn for next time?
If the typical reaction is the former, it’s no different than awarding your own version of the Golden Fleece Awards. If we vilify ideas and initiatives that aren’t immediately successful – or don’t quickly deliver a profitable result – people will quickly stop pursuing the more ambitious ideas. As Ed Catmull described the impact of this behavior,
“In fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.”
The trailblazing physicist David Bohm described similar concerns in his 1968 essay On Creativity. In it he described the main barrier to committing to the new,
“One thing that prevents us from thus giving primary emphasis to the perception of what is new and different is that we are afraid to make mistakes… If one will not try anything until he is assured that he will not make a mistake in whatever he does, he will never be able to learn anything new at all. And this is more or less the state in which most people are. Such a fear of making a mistake is added to one’s habits of mechanical perception in terms of preconceived ideas and learning only for specific utilitarian purposes. All of these combine to make a person who cannot perceive what is new and who is therefore mediocre rather than original.”
Choose Your Response.
“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock as she rose to defend the great E.E. Cummings after detractors attacked her Academy of American Poets for awarding him their annual fellowship.
The prescribed innovation never happens. The sure experiment isn’t really an experiment. And there’s no invention that doesn’t bring some level of risk. With each step towards the new, towards innovation and scientific advancement – we risk failure. How we choose to handle that failure – and the example we choose to set for future behaviors – will determine whether people push forward towards new and greater advancements or whether they elect to merely repeat what’s been done before.
As our obsession with productivity grows and the demand for near-term results hits a fever pitch, our patience for asking complex questions and delving into the unknown is under constant attack. As celebrated creative icon Charles Eames warned,
“Recent years have shown a growing preoccupation with the circumstances surrounding the creative act and a search for the ingredients that promote creativity. This preoccupation in itself suggests that we are in a special kind of trouble — and indeed we are.”
We are indeed. But it’s not something that we don’t know how to turn around. The next time an experiment doesn’t work out, decide whether giving out your own version of the Golden Fleece Awards is worth it. And recognize what it’s costing you in the long-run.