Yes-men, Naysayers, and Innovation in Science

Leaders get severely critisized for surrounding themselves with yes-men. People who never hear about why their ideas suck can put a lot of energy into bad ideas. I have always felt that one should always be open to critiques. Well, my opinion is changing, basically, because nay-sayers are even worse.

This idea first struck me from the concept of brainstorming. Good brainstorming requires that, for the duration of the brainstorming, there is no negativity, no filtering of ideas. Joking around and absurd ideas are welcome. It's about getting a quantity of ideas. For a great book about innovation and brainstorming, I recommend "The Art of Innovation" by Thomas Kelley.

Then I read about Steve Jobs at Apple in this article in Time (Canadian Edition, October 24, 2005, written by Lev Grossman.)

"Call it the Parable of the Concept Car. “Here’s what you find at a lot of companies,” he [Jobs] says, kicking back in a conference room at Apple’s gleaming white Silicon Valley headquarters, which looks something like a cross between an Ivy League university and an iPod. “You know how you see a show car, and it’s really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory!

“What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse.”

When Jobs took up his present position at Apple in 1997, that’s the situation he found. He and Jonathan Ive, head of design, came up with the original iMac, a candy-colored computer merged with a cathode-ray tube that, at the time, looked like nothing anybody had seen outside of a Jetsons cartoon. “Sure enough,” Jobs recalls, “when we took it to the engineers, they said, ‘Oh.’ And they came up with 38 reasons. And I said, ‘No, no, we’re doing this.’ And they said, ‘Well, why?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m the CEO, and I think it can be done.’ And so they kind of begrudgingly did it. But then it was a big hit.”"

Word. This reminds me of Montica Pes's brilliant directing. She's be trying to get something to work-- some part of the set, some dance, and there would be people around trying to tell her why it could not be done. Often I was one of those people. She would throw these people out of the room, until it was finally done. I never got thrown out, but I should have. I might have figured things out quicker. I've been a terrible nay-sayer in my time, both in the arts and in science, and I want to stop.

I think there is great potential for the application of brainstorming and this Jobs-like attitude in science. When there is some phenomena that needs be understood, brainstorm about how it might work. I mean really brainstorm, for like 20 minutes, trying to get a diversity of ideas, with nobody allowed to say "well in the JPLMC 2002 it was found that blah blah blah so that can't be right..." In cognitive science all theories are wrong so far, so just shut up for a while.

New theories always look bad when they first appear. Or at least, that's the attitude I'm taking. As the same Time article says: "What Jobs has accepted—the truth that he’s willing to face and others cower from—is that new things don’t want to be born. Innovation causes problems, and it’s much easier simply to avoid it. In fact, it’s downright tempting. Other guys may give in to that temptation but not Jobs."

The goal is to explore a theory until you see what's good about it. Don't knock it down with the first reason you can think of to do so. I know from personaly experience that there is a great temptation to do that. When I was in California last week my friend's boyfriend Evan, who was an engineer who makes medical equipment, asked me if I wanted to hear his theory of consciousness. For those of you who are not cognitive scientists, this kind of question makes us roll our eyes, at least inside. Everyone thinks they're in a great position to come up with answers to the mysteries of mind. But I had this new attitude. I am going to listen to this guy, and really try to find out what's good about the theory.

He said something like "Thoughts that are unformed are unconscious. You are only conscious of fully-formed thoughts." Now, when he said this, immediately there were critiques jumping to mind. What do you mean, "fully-formed?" What about activities that become unconscious (automaticity), like driving? It seems implausible that the executive that determines what becomes conscious or not has to evaluate every thought. What is the function of consciousness in this theory?

All that stuff came to mind. And, being a cognitive scientist and a normally competitive alpha male, I could have showed off and brought them up, probably ending the conversation and possibly impressing this guy with my expertise. It was tempting. But I forced myself not only to not air these objections, but to not think about them until I heard more.

I asked questions to try to get an idea of what he was really talking about, and it kind of paid off. I don't believe his theory of consciousness, but I actually do have a new way of thinking about it if I want to use it. The idea of consciousness as the result of a relevancy filter is something I'd never thought of before.

I'm thinking of enforcing this in my lab meetings when I get my lab this fall. The other part of it is training my students and postdocs (and perhaps faculty colleagues) to not be naysayers. I will do this by asking them to keep critiques to themselves, and to just jot notes when they think of objections. Perhaps I will even ask people to leave the meeting, or if someone never gets better, remove them from the laboratory, as Jobs has had to do:

"Here’s the end of his parable, the story of what happened after Jobs got the iMac launched. “The people around here—some of them left,” he remembers. “Actually, some of them I got rid of. But most of them said, ‘Oh, my God, now I get it.’ We’ve been doing this now for seven years, and everybody here gets it. And if they don’t, they’re gone.”"

The idea is to create a culture of innovation in the science laboratory. People need to be enculturated, and if they can't be, they have to leave.


Anonymous said…
The other extreme is ignoring bad news, which I have done at times, in the hopes of working it out/surmounting it later. Sometimes even that worked out... I think I like the brainstorm-then-evaluate-critically strategy best. I have a few dozen project ideas at the moment, but playing "visionary" and going for the outrageous ones needs to be tempered with short term achievability. When managing others (and myself, I suppose), I like to have a pie in the sky project going for every pragmatic money-maker. I agree completely that naysaying has no place in science, but the hard part of taking advice is knowing the difference between fear-of-change vs. voice of wisdom.

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