Reduce your prejudice to innovation

-May 02, 2016

NIH is prejudice against ideas that were not invented here. Every team, every group, every company faces NIH to some degree and engineers and scientists are among the worst NIH practitioners. We're so damned smart that we think we know everything already—and we've proven ourselves right often enough that most of us nearly believe it.

Consider the latest innovation from your competitor. It might make big news here at EDN, might even win awards, but in most cases our initial reactions to incremental technical improvements in our regions of expertise are negative. Obviously if it were such a great idea, such a stupendous vision, such a disruptive invention, you would have thought of it first. Therefore, an invention that isn't invented here can't possibly be great.

I know this, for I am the king of NIH.

I'm trying to convert my kingdom into a democracy, introduce a little perestroika, open my perspective to ideas I may have been ignoring.

As we go through the world, collecting data with our five senses and the equipment we use to supplement them, our brains employ vast arrays of wetware processors that refine the data into perceptions and thoughts. Neuroscience has produced a vast trove of evidence that these processors, while deeply inter-dependent, operate in parallel with each other. Survival of our species required that we process our sensory data quickly; at least as quickly as our predators process theirs.

Because faster processing for the predator means better eating, all species have to confront…

The consultant’s dilemma: You can have it good, fast, or cheap—pick two.

Natural selection chose fast and cheap: fast processing that gets an answer just good enough to keep us safe and sexy while burning as few calories as possible (i.e., cheap). Thorough, deep, nuanced, good processing was optional. They have their place, but only in the more social and abstract realms of species survival, not at the saber-toothed level.

Our fast and cheap parallel processors compare fragments of incoming data with stored patterns and try to jam them into pre-existing categories as quickly and easily as possible—whether they belong there or not. We hear something growling behind us, turn and see fangs! If it turns out to be a gust of wind in a dead tree, well, better safe than sorry.

Our brains contain parallel, interdependent networks. (Source: National Institute of Health, not to be confused with the other NIH.) 

When our parallel processors have trouble categorizing the data—even after trading images, scents, sounds, tastes, feelings between each other—then that perception percolates into awareness as a conscious thought for us to evaluate and, hopefully create a new category to make sense of it.

Let me slow down for a second.

I've introduced two types of thoughts (and "thoughts" include perceptions, ideas, and what have you), those that you're aware of and those that you're not. At this instant, you're reading. You're aware of it now, but only because I reminded you. You're looking at lit pixels; you probably know a ton about how to control those pixels, too, but a second ago you were occupied with the symbols they portray. You know where you are, a lab, a café, a park, your office, or underground lair, but while you're reading, you're not conscious of it. You're not consciously aware of millions of things going on around you right now, but if something needs your attention, it’s likely to percolate up into your conscious awareness. This is what I mean by conscious and unconscious thoughts.

Your brilliant, mostly serial top-down conscious self can juggle the 3-10 (maybe a dozen) thoughts at once with a refresh rate of about the time between heartbeats. Your mostly parallel bottom-up unconscious self has scads of processors creating millions of results all the time. When one of those bottom-up thoughts is sufficiently important or novel, it percolates up and becomes one of the 3-10 in your conscious awareness.

The neural processes that choose whether or not an unconscious thought should be elevated to consciousness neurons that transmit inhibitory action potentials; chemically transmitted voltage spikes that damp out thoughts and ideas that can be rammed into our pre-existing categories.

Even when a foreign idea percolates up and demands our top-down attention, our first response is usually to tamp it down consciously into a pre-existing category whether it fits or not.

That makes two types of inhibition: ideas that are inhibited before they ever percolate to consciousness and ideas that we inhibit out of laziness. I call this "idea prejudice" because, in both cases, we prejudge ideas without considering them.

To stay clear of saber toothed tigers, we had to get the data into the saber toothed category ASAP, but even if it kept our ancestors out of saber toothed mouths.

Prejudice: the ultimate form of laziness
To innovate, to unleash our creativity so that we can introduce something new, novel and effective, something that doesn't honestly fit into one of our pre-existing categories of ideas, we have to reduce our idea prejudice. To reduce our idea prejudice we have to reduce both types of inhibitory impulses.

By practicing vigilance, we can learn to catch ourselves when we deliberately inhibit an idea. Then we can back off and consider it, even if it's NIH, try it on, feel it out and in many cases find something useful, a piece to a puzzle we didn’t even know existed and put it to work. Since we can’t possibly turn off all of our inhibitory neurons, signal to noise won’t be a problem for ideas that manage to percolate up into consciousness.

We can also train ourselves to fight our unconscious idea prejudice by increasing our "answer resolution." More on that later.

Editor's note: The concepts of "idea prejudice" and "answer resolution" come from Ransom’s book, The Left Brain Speaks but the Right Brain Laughs, which is coming out in September 2016 from Viva Editions.

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