Cartoon: Thought experiment: Overweight Guy's Dilemma 

Thought Experiments for Innovation

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Thought experiments have long been used by scientists and philosophers as a means of visualising abstract and theoretical concepts in concrete ways. They can also be used for devising innovative ideas and testing them in your head.

Thought experiments are exactly that: experiments that are performed in the mind rather than in life. They are widely used by scientists. Albert Einstein worked out the special theory of relativity while playing with thought experiments. He started at the age of 16, when he imagined being able to move so fast he could catch up with a light beam. Galileo Galilei imagined dropping a heavy ball attached by a string to a light ball and dropping both from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Since the light ball would not slow the fall of the heavy ball, it suggested that heavy objects do not fall faster than light objects. (You can find a short description of some of the most famous thought experiments here.)

Thought experiments are cheap − they only require brains − and effective. They create concrete examples of theoretical or philosophical concepts which are easy to explore in your head. For example, the prisoner's dilemma is a super effective tool for understanding how people behave in negotiations in which they have personal interests as well as shared interests.

Prisoner's Dilemma

Imagine that you an I have been busted! The police have arrested us for our daring armed robbery of the International Innovation Bank. We've each been taken to separate rooms for interrogation and we will not see each or communicate with each other in any way until we go to trial. The prosecutor tells you, "I know you two did it, but I'll be honest. The evidence is slim. If you confess and Jeffrey does not, I will let you go free and use your testimony to press the maximum charges against Jeffrey. If Jeffrey confesses and you do not, I will use his testimony to press full charges against you. If you both confess, I will have to prosecute you both, but I will push for a minimal sentence and early parole. If neither one of you confesses, the best I can do is charge you both with possession of an illegal firearm, which might lead to a fine or a very short prison term. Think about it and write your decision in a note to me by tomorrow morning." Moreover, in this scenario, you and I do not know each other very well. We just did the bank robbery together for the money.

So, what do you do? The best option for both of us is not to confess. But if you do not confess and I do, you will go to jail and I will be free. Unfortunately, you do not really know what I will do, do you?

Thought Experiments in Innovation

So, how could you use thought experiments in innovation? It's easy − in theory, anyway. Simply visualise scenarios that are relevant to your innovation challenge. For example, Kwerps Pharma, a pharmaceutical company, has been making a prescription migraine pain-relief medicine for years and it has been profitable for them. However, the drug's patent will expire soon and management has learned that at least one generic drug manufacturer in India intends to make and sell an identical medication. Moreover, there is no way that Kwerps Pharma can compete on price; their manufacturing costs are higher than the generic drug maker's.

So, Kwerps Pharma decides to get creative and innovate. They put together a team and create a thought experiment that involves a curious patient and a compulsively honest doctor. Whatever the doctor says, the patient questions it and the doctor will reply honestly and completely. Their aim is to devise a scenario in which the doctor would recommend Kwerps Pharma's medicine over the generic competition's.

An initial idea might be to use marketing to promote Kwerps's medication as better. But, that fails in the thought experiment:

Patient: I read that there is now a low cost generic alternative to Kwerps migraine pills.

Doctor: that is correct.

Patient: But, Kwerps says their product is better because they have been making it for years. Is this true?

Doctor: It is true that Kwerps Pharma has been making their pill for years, but it is not true that Kwerps Pharma's pills are better than the generic alternative. The two products are virtually identical.

Patient: So, is there any reason I should pay more for Kwerps's pills?

Doctor: Not from the perspective of price or quality of the cure.

Clearly, a simple marketing solution will not work. Kwerps will need to continue to think creatively until they find a solution in which the patient is satisfied that Kwerps pills are the better option.

Testing Ideas

A government is deeply concerned about the growing obesity problem in their country and decide to launch a campaign to encourage people to eat less, eat better and exercise more. They put together a small, diverse team and run an anticonventional thinking (ACT) session and come up with some seemingly good ideas.

They can test their ideas by imagining an overweight person sitting in a chair in a hall with a door on either side. The door on the left leads to a room where a cook is preparing a variety of delicious desserts. Also in that room is also a large screen television, an iPad and a smartphone.

The door to the right leads to the implementation of one idea from the ACT session. The team then goes through the thought experiment. Is their idea so good that the overweight person is compelled to take the door to the right? If not, can they fix up the idea to make it more compelling? If not, they must reject the idea and test the next idea.

If none of the ideas is compelling enough, they need to go back and devise more ideas.

This thought experiment quickly makes it clear that the conventional solution, a publicity campaign informing people of the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise, is unlikely to work. Assuming a person is already overweight suggests that she prefers to take it easy and enjoy good food. Given the choice between an awesome dessert, TV and games versus the vague notion that she should be healthier, I think we know what most people would do.

Entire Innovation Process

Thought experiments are not only useful for devising and testing ideas. They are also great for ensuring that an idea remains valid as it is sent to decision makers for approval, tested and implemented. At each of these stages, your idea may be changed. A decision maker may decide that your idea is too radical and suggest some changes. Test her changes in the thought experiment. Do you still get the outcome you want from the thought experiment? If not, then implementing the idea with the decision maker's changes would be a worse outcome than cancelling the idea's implementation. In other words, you would do better to not innovate than you would to innovate with the required changes.

Fortunately, by taking the decision maker through the thought experiment with your original idea and then taking her through the thought experiment with her modified idea, you ought to be able to convince her that her changes would be detrimental to the idea's success − and therefore, the company's success.

Designing Thought Experiments

Designing a thought experiment that suits your situation is more easily said than done. You need a visually creative mind to create a scenario that is representative of the situation that requires innovation. The situation itself, needs to be relatively simply, highly idealised and be sufficiently distant from your organisation that it encourages you to visualise the situation as outsiders.

This is not easy and may require hiring an outsider to help. But, I believe it is worth it. Once you have a thought experiment, you can use it again and again to devise ideas, test ideas and develop ideas into successful innovations.

A Powerful Tool in Your Innovation Toolkit

Thought experiments have long been used by creative people in science and philosophy. I believe many creative people are adept at performing thought experiments in their heads in order to play with ideas. I know I do this regularly.

If you want your business to innovate more effectively, then you should add thought experiments to your innovation tool kit. It is a low cost, but immensely powerful tool.


A Little Help From Me (Self-Promotion)

Would you like a little help with thought experiments? I can coach you in the use of thought experiments; facilitate innovation sessions using thought experiments and other creative tools; or deliver workshops or talks on how to devise and use thought experiments as a part of your innovation activities. Contact me to discuss what would best benefit your innovation initiative.



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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