Innovation - Not always "Just the Facts"

At Bell Labs we used to say, "How much did you pay for that data?"

Most market research projects - for strategic planning and innovation (my passions) or even incremental product development focus on getting the facts. Lets take a look at an example: One college in America, who I shall not name, states on their website that "Since 1920, more CollegeXgraduates have gone on to earn PhDs than have the graduates of any other American baccalaureate college."

This is true, it's a let's look at "WHY" (I love asking why!)

  • Because CollegeX is older than most of the institutions it's compared to for this data
  • Because CollegeX is bigger than most of the institutions it's compared to for this data
  • The data is taken from 1920 to 2010 - that's 90 years averaged
  • Over the past 20yrs, this is no longer true

Electric companies say that electric heat is 100% efficient compared to natural gas which is about 90% efficient. But in terms of generation and distribution, electricity is 33% efficient and generation and distribution of natural gas is about 98% efficient.

Electric vehicles don't generate pollution! Hum...what about the production of the electricity to charge a car? How does that (remember, most electricity is generated from burning coal and once it's out on the wires, it's only about 33% efficient) compare with a combustion engine?  Given today's electric grid (the one we've got), EVs aren't saving that much carbon.

Remember the Juan Williams saga with NPR and Fox and his statement about Muslims on a plane? And the recent firing of NPR's CEO? Lots of facts on all sides, most taken out of context. And we can just look at what's going on in the Mideast/North Africa to see how data are being used as facts in so many different contexts by different groups.

So why do I bring this up? Because while facts are important, humans have a tendency to pick the facts that support the hypothesis they want to confirm. The order in which facts are presented can strongly bias the interpreter. We don't tend to ask questions about what the facts don't say.

Facts can get in the way of innovation unless they are put in the right context - as a tool to look at things differently vs. taking them as the end-all-be-all. When presented with facts, try a few things to get a different perspective - ask....

  • If we reordered the facts, how would things look? (e.g., NPR)
  • What don't these facts address? (e.g., Electric heat)
  • What do these facts assume as truth? (e.g., CollegeX)
  • What follow-on questions result from these facts?
  • Why are these facts true?
  • How long will these facts be true for?
  • Who cares about these facts anyway?

So, check the facts, get some facts, but put them in perspective, be prudent...provide balance and ballast...because sometimes, the facts can hinder, not help innovation...