Why I Moved to Vegas, and What It Can Teach Us About Innovation

by Pete Foley

I moved to Las Vegas about four months ago, and I have fallen in love with it. However, people who don’t live here almost universally struggle to understand why! The question I get asked virtually every time an old friend finds out that I have moved here is some variation of, “what were you thinking? Why Vegas of all places?

I now refer my more visual fiends to my photoblog, called, somewhat uncreatively, Why I Moved to Vegas. Failing that, my elevator speech explains that my Vegas is not really about the razzle-dazzle of the strip. Instead, what I’ve fallen in love with is the sunny weather (yes, it is a dry heat), and hiking and photographing the plethora of National Parks, and lesser known State Parks that are a short drive from my house. Red Rock, Death Valley, Zion, and even the Grand Canyon and Sedona to name but a few.

I may be a tad defensive about my new home, but I think this disconnect between what people think Vegas is, and how I think of it illustrates two really important biases that can impact innovation, and business productivity as a whole. One is the confirmation bias, the other is the illusion of understanding, sometimes called the illusion of knowledge. The confirmation bias tells us that once we have found what we are looking for, we tend to stop looking.

In the case of Vegas, the first thing that most people see is the strip. If that satisfies their need for information, the confirmation bias kicks in, and they stop looking. As a result, they can miss a lot of really cool stuff, like Red Rock Canyon, or the Grand Canyon. That may not be the end of the world, but the confirmation bias can have life and death consequences elsewhere. I remember talking about this with world renowned visual scientist Jeremy Wolfe, who was looking into it in the context of radiology.

There the potential problem occurs when a radiologist finds a tumor in a scan. If the confirmation bias kicks in, they can potentially miss a second or third tumor, and that can have very serious consequences for a patient. You can imagine that there are also implications in fields such as homeland security and policing, where fixating on the first viable answer you find could result in missing something bigger. In fact, the implications are widespread, but I am going to focus mainly on innovation.

Once we have found an innovative solution to a problem, there is a danger that we are satisfied, the confirmation bias kicks in, and consequently we ‘turn off’ and move into execution mode. This good enough solution may be OK in an uncompetitive environment, but what happens if someone else keeps looking, and finds a much better idea? You don’t want to be the guy fine-tuning the latest refinement to a horse drawn carriage when somebody else is developing the motorcar.

Fighting natural human biases is always challenging, but in this case, there are many things we can do. For example, we can simply park ideas, and push teams to come up with multiple concepts. Or we can create internal competitions, and have different groups battle to come up with increasingly more breakthrough ideas. Or we can simply ask innovators to for their analogy to the aforementioned motor car, assuming they are in the horse drawn carriage business. Digging back into my background of consumer goods, that might be a detergentless washing machine. Or back to our automobile example, maybe the commercial driverless car. I’m by no means sure how far away that is, but it does question how much innovation effort you might want to put against innovating the driving experience in the mid to lon term?

The Illusion of Understanding: The second, and somewhat related bias is the illusion of understanding, or the illusion of knowledge. This is a concept that was first introduced to me by Cognitive Scientist Art Markman. Art and I had many, many discussions about using analogy to solve difficult problems, by borrowing ideas from somewhere else where they had already solved a similar one. However, for this to work, we really have to understand our problem, and the system it operates in pretty well. What is amazing is how often we don’t. Unfortunately, we frequently mistake familiarity for causal understanding. For example, in everyday life, because we flush a toilet everyday, we think we understand how it works. But try drawing a detailed diagram of one, and you may feel differently!

At work, because we interact with our products and business everyday, we can fall into he same trap. In some cases, we may well understand our product and system well, but there are nearly always gaps. So before we start trying to innovate, at the very least it is usually worth some serious introspection to challenge our knowledge of our own area of expertise, and understand our blind spots.

One of my favorite examples of how much we may not know is advertising, and one of my favorite quotes on that topic comers from John Wannamaker, who said; Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half. We know a little more about the psychology of advertising and branding today than in his time, but arguably, Wannamaker’s insight still applies. That is a topic for another blog, but it is both common, and understandable for us to execute advertising, design or innovation without knowing everything about it.

There is nothing wrong with this per se. Business is not an academic exercise, and good managers make good decisions based on limited data. We do need to know if something works, and ideally some of the why, but if we wait to know everything, we risk being left behind by competition.

One of my favorite examples of the illusion of understanding comes from Chris Chabris in the excellent book, The Invisible Gorilla, that he co-wrote with Daniel Simons. In this he describes an experiment by Psychologist Rebecca Lawson, who asked people who were very familiar with bicycles and know how to ride them, to draw a diagram of how a bicycle works. The results are hilarious, and in general horribly incorrect. You can see a couple of examples here. Despite this, most people rated their knowledge of how a bicycle works as being very good.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You! Of course, that doesn’t happen in business. Or does it? One of the big contributors to the sub-prime mortgage debacle was that most people working with them didn’t really understand them. The more complex systems and products get, the easier it is to be seduced by the illusion of understanding.

One excellent way to avoid falling into this trap, or at least reduce its’ effect, is to simply ask people to map out there problem in detail at the beginning of an innovation process. Of if you have an innovation team, ask all of them to map out the problem, and the system they are working with, and then compare them. You might be surprised by how different those definitions are. And by making that explicit, you may save a lot of time down the line.

image credit: Moyan Brenn

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him on twitter at @foley_pete.

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