Why scientism will destroy your company’s ability to innovate

Our ability to quantify and measure nearly everything has grown exponentially. But that doesn't mean that the scientific methods is the best way to run product teams.

People get some very strange ideas about science. One of my favourite stories from the years my wife spent working on her PhD (in genetics and immunology) is one of her supervisors closing down his computer on a Friday, and then declaring:

”Nature: 1, Steven: 0. Have a good weekend, everyone.”

Scientism, as Martin outlined earlier in the week, is the belief that science can be an answer to everything. And yet, when you spend any extended time around scientists, you realise that more scientists view science as not a process that produces answers, as much as ever-better questions. And even then, as my wife’s supervisor discovered, you can spend an awful long time disappearing up a dead end.

The Quantified Society

We’re going through a difficult phase right now, because technology has offered us the ability to measure and quantify things that we’ve never been able to before. And we have not yet successfully assimilated that ability.

Sometimes that works well: while the quantified self movement has been around a longtime — we had speakers about it as far back as 2011, the first NEXT I attended — but, personally, the consumerisation of it in Apple Watch has been what’s made the difference to me. The gentle tracking and prompting from my watch has helped me lose weight and get more active even as I enter my middle years.

But sometimes it can be counter-productive. In online publishing, the downwards cycle of clickbait fighting for its share of a worsening attention economy is the classic example of this: analytics-driven decision making slowly driving out the ability of a publisher to surprise and delight an audience in favour of delivering what they already know they like — until they get bored of it.

Further back, a variation of it was the “bean-counter” approach to business management, where “cost optimisation” eventually produced a lean, profitable organisation — that dies suddenly when market conditions change and it no longer has the ability to adapt or innovate.

Why did this happen? The rise of people with an accountancy background to dominate boards and management consulting. The lack of diversity of thought leads to a narrow vision of what a “good” organisation looks like.

The Myopia of single discipline teams

Views like scientism tend to arise from small, insular teams. When you are surrounded by people who think just like you, and whose skill set is much like yours, you tend to adopt a tunnel vision mindset. One could certainly argue that many of the problems faced by companies like Google and, in particular, Facebook, are driven by the lack of cognitive diversity in their hiring. A company full of coders tends to see coding as the solution to all the world’s ills.

The answer to that, as many companies have discovered, is multi-disciplinary teams, who bring with them the ability to view problems from all angles.

The news last night that Jony Ive is completing his slow edging out of the door at Apple put me in mind of that. While there’s plenty of analytics and measurement in Apple’s design process, there’s a whole bunch of intuition as well. All the major reports of the often-secret workings of the Industrial Design Team there have a variation of a story where they make dozens of models of different form factors for a new device, and spend time handling them to get a sense of what feels right.

But that feel is not, in of itself, enough. The design needs to account for the physics of the electronics inside, and for the affordability of the device.

Apple is well-known for delivering products which are well-integrated through cross-functional working – but with design taking the lead. Even there, though, we’ve seen at least two recent examples of the design-led approach clashing with the simple realities of physics to create less functional products:

  • The “trashcan” Mac Pro, which has just been replaced, that was designed into a thermal corner – it couldn’t cope with the newer, hotter chips on the market
  • The current generation of MacBook keyboards, whose tiny switches seem to be especially vulnerable to dust and materials fatigue.

Balance is hard to achieve. And, at times, Apple has been guilty of designism, scientism’s more flamboyant cousin.

Cognitive diversity FTW

Successful multi-disciplinary working requires a balance between disparate skills and ways of thinking. These cognitive Parallelwelten need to be brought together, in some form of creative tension. Often one discipline has to lead, but that does not mean dominate. Scientism is the antithesis of that, and is merely another manifestation of the sort of singular focus that made, for example, bean-counting corporations such awful places to work.

After all, silicon is built for efficiency, not humanity. We’re great at inspiration, innovation and creativity. Let’s not design ourselves out of the equation, but taking a concept that works brilliantly in its space — scientific research — and applying it where it shouldn’t be used. Best of luck to you if you apply the scientific method to your love life. A series of rigorous experiments to test your compatibility with your mate — coupled with a control group, of course — is likely to see you end up very single indeed…

Yes, of course, we should use analytics and science in our work. Being able to measure things is just the ability to capture data that can inform our decision making. But that must be kept in proportion — it should inform it not determine it.


Photo by Tobias van Schneider on Unsplash