Parsimonious Innovation

by Scott Bowden

Parsimonious InnovationIn the field of innovation, as in many endeavors in life, there is a constant tension between simplicity and complexity. When we see a new idea applied in the form of an innovative solution to a problem, we are sometimes astounded by the simplicity of the idea, thus generating the oft-heard quip “why didn’t I think of that?”

This is the case for many consumer electronic devices with simple yet highly functional forms, such as the Nest thermostat with a single dial. Conversely, we may look at an innovation and reflect on the complexity of the technology that underlies the solution, such as the complex algorithms driving a successful search engine or the technology that sits behind the simple dial of the Nest thermostat.

This same tension is evident in the physical and social sciences and is perhaps best summarized by Occam’s Razor, which focuses on the power of the simplest explanation for a phenomenon as a starting point for investigation. Stated quite succinctly, the physicists Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw write that Occam’s Razor “really says that the simplest hypothesis should be tried first, and only if this fails should we add complication bit by bit until the hypothesis fits the experimental evidence.”

My past work in the social sciences focused on international relations theory in which the leading scholars in the field struggled to explain the complex interactions between nation-states via the simplest, or most parsimonious, theories. The scholar who best articulates a parsimonious, or reductionist, theory of international politics is Kenneth Waltz, who examines whether international relations can be explained by the sometimes bellicose nature of man, the aggressive nature of certain nation-states, or the anarchic nature of the international system itself.

Rather than bore the reader with a detailed review of these three levels of international politics (one hint – Waltz selects the third level, or the anarchy of the international system, as the simplest yet most powerful predictive theory of international politics), I would like to apply the concept of parsimony to the field of innovation. To accomplish this, we need to consider Samuel Huntington’s guidance to Fareed Zakaria in the field of international relations:

If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single [cause], or what are the couple of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.

The words above could serve as the mission statement for an innovation program, as the job of the innovation leader is to distill and simplify the complex when working on a truly innovative idea.

In the realm of corporate innovation, our work typically focuses on two areas: 1-identifying new products or services, or 2-identifying operational efficiencies and cost savings. When working on a new product or service, the innovator may be overwhelmed at the thought of how to develop an idea that could lead to a new product or service to compete in a crowded marketplace of strong players. Innovation lore is replete with examples of statements suggesting that everything of import has already been invented decades ago, but the apprehension on the part of an innovator facing the challenge of the marketplace is real. Clearly there can be successful innovation in new products and services, as we see the results of these efforts in front of our very eyes on a daily basis.

The application of simplification may in fact be a better fit in the second area of innovation focused on identifying operational efficiencies to yield cost savings. I have spent many years in the field of Business Transformation and am always pleasantly surprised at the benefits that can be derived from focusing on the simplification of a process that has become unnecessarily complex over years and years of operation.

Huntington’s manifesto can provide inspiration to the innovator by encouraging him or her to focus not on the complexity of the environment but, rather, on the process of distillation and simplification that can lead to true innovation. Cox and Forshaw provide an even better description of the power of parsimony:

‘From the simplest of ideas’ . . . if there were ever to be an epitaph written for humanity’s greatest scientific achievements, it might begin with these five words. Taking delight in observing and considering the smallest and seemingly most insignificant details of nature has led time and again to the most majestic of conclusions. We walk in the midst of wonders, and if we open our eyes and minds to them, the possibilities are boundless.

Sources: Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, Why Does E=MC2? (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2010). Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: Waveland Press, 2010). Robert D. Kaplan, “Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things),” The Atlantic (January/February 2012). image credit: therapeutic

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

No comments

  1. How long will solitary innovation be a part of our society? Social analysis should be available in a digested process driven format that is completely interactive with an open user base.

    Social science as a an element of corporate consulting seems like misuse of its ultimate social potential. Depends if you are believe in slave or master morality.

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