All Ideas Can't Be Good Ideas

All Ideas Can't Be Good IdeasThe other day I was at Mohegan Sun, which is a casino about an hour and a half outside of Boston. And while I’m there I love to speak with the gamblers because each of them believe they have a system. They believe they have a method to ensure that they win. And they’re all convinced they’ve won more money than they’ve lost.

Well, of course, this is not true. Casinos are not in the habit of giving money out to people. The house always wins. We know this to be true.

Why do people believe that they win more than they lose? It’s something called confirmation bias, and confirmation bias is the brain’s processing mechanism by which it finds evidence to support its belief structure. Whatever you believe, you will find evidence to support that, and you will subconsciously ignore anything that refutes your belief structure. That’s why we can have such powerful beliefs in spite of evidence to the contrary.

It’s very important for innovators to understand this concept, because every person is convinced they have a billion dollar idea. They’ve got the next big idea that’s going to change the world and make them rich. But what happens is their confirmation bias only allows them to see the evidence that supports their belief that they have a great idea. Their brain doesn’t allow them to see all the evidence that proves it’s actually a bad idea.

There’s a reason why 70 to 90 percent of new innovations fail. It’s not because these aren’t well intentioned, motivated, or excited people. But they’re people who, like all people, have confirmation bias. As a result they will subconsciously ignore the evidence that proves that what they think is a great idea, is in fact not such a good idea.

As innovators, as entrepreneurs, as individuals it’s important to recognize this. Now how do we counterbalance this?

It’s difficult for us to find evidence that refutes a strongly held belief. So what we need to do is, when we’re working on something, partner with a devil’s advocate. Find someone who’ll be the contrary point, somebody whose sole purpose is to find evidence that proves your idea is a bad idea.

Now it may be hard to hear what that person has to say. You will want to reject what they have to say. But if you can open up your mind and be willing to hear the contrary points of view, you may be able to refine your product, service, or idea, and come up with something that’s better. Or you may learn it’s just such a bad idea and you shouldn’t invest the time and money in this one. Find a different one.

This is really important for all organizations (big or small) and individuals.

We know that every gambler doesn’t win more than they lose. And we know that every idea is not a great idea.

The question is:

“What are you going to do to make sure that you invest your time, money, and energy in the things that have the highest likelihood of paying off?”

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Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro is the author of five books including “Best Practices Are Stupid” and “Personality Poker” (both published by Penguin). He is also a popular innovation speaker and business advisor.

Stephen Shapiro




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  1. Filiberto Amati on October 7, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I think that talking about ‘confirmation bias’, it’s spot on, it’s difficult and all innovation professionals should talk about it more and more often.
    I also believe that among the many ‘confirmation bias’ causes, there are drivers at personal level, but also cultural causse at company level: too often people at all levels are assigned a project – which is not of their own inception – and often their career hangs in the balance of whether the product makes it to the market or not. It’s more important to make the ‘damn’ launch, than asking the question whether we should really launch at all. Confirmation bias becomes an almost dead or alive decision to push one’s career forward (e.g. on your casino metaphor, players become more risk taking when their losses are mounting up). If companies embed failure (+ the ‘as long as we learn from it’ dimension) within their cultural framework and their incentive systems (aka rewarding the value of the knowledge rather the project launch), everybody in the organization will start looking at things more critically and finally save the company resources by killing projects and launches that should not see the light of the sun.

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