People Get the '90% Of Everything Is Crap' Law All Wrong

That is how Sturgeon’s Law is often phrased. To see what it means, let’s back up a bit and start by finding the flaw in this argument: most innovation consultants are lousy, so innovation consulting is worthless.

We see arguments like this all the time, about innovation consultantsabout regular consultants, about academics, and about bloggers, and those are just the categories that apply to me!

The flaw in the argument is that just because we can find examples – often plentiful examples – of garbage in a field, this does not by extension make the entire field garbage.

I was reminded of this again this New Yorker review of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, which suggests that the argument they make in the book could be read as having this construction. I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t say if does or not.

In his new book Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel Dennett recounts the full quote from Theodore Sturgeon outlining what has become known as Sturgeon’s Law:

When people talk about the mystery novel, they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.  When they talk about the western, they say there’s The Way West and Shane.  But when they talk about science fiction, they call it “Buck Rogers stuff,” and they say “90 per cent of science fiction is crud.”  Well, they’re right.  90 per cent of science fiction is crud.  But then 90 per cent of everything is crud, and it’s the 10 per cent that isn’t crud that is important, and the 10 per cent of science fiction that isn’t crud is as good or better than anything being written anywhere.

Dennett follows this by saying:

A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form,… don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap!  Go after the good stuff, or leave it alone.  This advice is often ignored by idealogues intent on destroying the reputation of analytic philosophy, evolutionary psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, macroeconomics, plastic surgery, improvisational theatre, television sitcoms, philosophical theology, massage therapy, you name it.  Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, stupid, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts.  Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patiences, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders in the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs.

Innovation Lessons From Sturgeon’s Law

I’ve been guilty of discounting entire fields based on the poor examples.  Dennett is right – it’s bad practice.  Here are some lessons that we can learn from this:

  • Don’t trust sweeping statements, like “big firms can’t innovate.”  Of course big organisations can innovate.  Most of them don’t.  Maybe even 90% of them are lousy at innovation.  Actually, most small organisations are pretty bad at innovation too.  And yet, we still have plenty of innovation going on.  Arguments that make sweeping generalizations about an entire class of organisation are never right – when someone makes an argument like that, ignore them.
  • Use the positive deviance approach to figure out does work.  Here is is: Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges. The Positive Deviance approach is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables the community to discover these successful behaviours and strategies and develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned.
  • In a complex system, classification is really important.  The economy is a complex system, and in complex systems there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.  So you need to classify things.  This means that things that look like either/or issues actually have both/and solutions.  This also means that outliers are important.  We tend to ignore outliers because they are, well, so outside the norm.  But that’s just the point.  In a system where the majority of examples are bad ones, we have to study the outliers to figure out what works.

If we take Dennett’s argument seriously, if you are trying to make the case that big firms can’t innovate, then you have to explain how Google, Li & Fung, IBM, Apple etc. aren’t innovative.  If you can prove that, then you’ve made your case.  If not, your argument is bad.

Here’s why I keep coming back to Sturgeon’s Law: managing is hard, and when people make simplistic, false statements about how it works, it makes it even harder.  Short, declarative, pithy statements make great blog post titles, and they’re very retweetable.  Complex arguments using classification and shades of grey do neither.

But our world of management is complex, needs classification and is grey, not black or white.  We need to build our skills in dealing with this.

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