Received Wisdom

Why do we blindly accept wide-spread theories and their widely employed practices as valid, assuming that they are well-substantiated?  I marvel at the amount of received wisdom that:

  • as it turns out, is the result of either an inspired or crazy (or crazily inspired or inspirationally crazy) person’s obsession, and
  • despite the fact that it has been disproved, has not be discarded.

And so apparently does Jonah Lehrer, a writer for The New Yorker, whose two articles, although separated by several months and covering vastly different subject matter, sound similar themes.  Cases in point:  brainstorming and casino design.

 Brainstorming

  1. large groups
  2. gobs of ideas
  3. non-judgmental environment (there are “no bad ideas”)

Apparently the central tenets of brainstorming, considered essential for generating truly breakthrough insights, were soundly debunked almost as soon as brainstorming was popularized, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from adhering to these principles or the practice.  In fact, consultancies have been founded on them, embracing them with near religious fervor.

I have to admit that the “no bad idea” rule really appealed to me as a young consultant facilitating group discussions.  It was a relatively non-confrontational way to put a lid on people who were more enthusiastic about tearing down ideas than building them up while opening up space for those who were willing to take a risk and put an idea on the table.  And the sheer quantity of ideas that were scrawled on white boards or on sticky notes that plastered the walls gave participants evidence of accomplishment as they left the working session and I benefitted from the halo effect, looking like a great consultant.

Brainstorming is the brainchild of John Osborn, a sort of Cro-Magnon mad man of advertising (the “O” of BBDO, the advertising colossus).  Osborn popularized his approach to creativity in one of several books that spread the word about his brainstorming methodology back in the 1940s.  Not long thereafter (1958) brainstorming theory was subjected to research at Yale University and that was only the beginning of “…[d]ecades of research [that] have consistently shown brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

It also appears that when people are encouraged to challenge each other’s ideas, groups generate more ideas.  Criticism introduces an alternative perspective that stimulates truly creative associations.  “…[T]he power of dissent is the power of surprise.” When a train of thought is derailed, it wakes people up to new possibilities.  And, it seems as if more people are just not better when it comes to group creativity.  But neither are too few.  Mix in the evidence that too much familiarity appears to be just as bad as too little shared history and it seems as if the moderate middle ground provides provide the best mix of trust and friction for groups to generate something truly new that has a good chance of commercial success.

Having thoroughly described how brainstorming has been debunked, if not dislodged, we turn to casino design.

 Casino Design

The Friedman International Standards of Casino Design:

  • Principle 1: A Physically Segmented Casino beats a Completely Open Barn
  • Principle 2: Gambling Equipment Immediately Inside Casino Entrances Beats Vacant Entrance Landings and Empty Lobbies
  • Principle 3: Short Lines of Sight Beat Extensive Visible Depth
  • Principle 4: The Maze Layout Beats Long, Wide, Straight Passageways and Aisles
  • Principle 5: A Compact and Congested Gambling-Equipment Layout Beats a Vacant and Spacious Floor Layout
  • Principle 6: An Organized Gambling-Equipment Layout With Focal Points of Interest Beats a Floor Layout That Lacks a Sense of Organization
  • Principle 7: Segregated Sit-Down Facilities
  • Principle 8: Low Ceilings Beat High Ceilings
  • Principle 9: Gambling Equipment As the Décor Beats Impressive and Memorable Decorations
  • Principle 10: Standard Décor Beats Interior Casino Themes
  • Principle 11: Pathways Emphasizing the Gambling Equipment Beat the Yellow Brick Road
  • Principle 12: Perception Beats Reality
  • Principle 13: Multiple Interior Settings and Gambling Ambiances Beat a Single Atmosphere Throughout

Who is Friedman and how did he arrive at these principles?  A former gambling addict who became a student of the environments in which he had lost so much money, Bill Friedman went on to manage a few casinos and teach some of the first university courses in casino management.  Distilling what made him tick when he gambled and what he observed about other gamblers into solid granite principles, Friedman exerted huge influence and his rules dominated casino design for an amazing run of almost 30 years.

But then, Roger Thomas, a commercial interior designer, went to work for Steve Wynn, and his design principles, sumptuously expressed at The Bellagio, were diametrically opposed to Friedman’s.  Spending upwards of $1.6 billion on lavish interior design from the casino floor to the guest rooms to the iconic fountain show (see below), Thomas violated all 13 principles.  The result was a property where the guests spent four times as much per room as the average property in Las Vegas.  Research into gambling behavior followed and, lo and behold, it turns out that people spend more money when they feel they are winners (a feeling that is reinforced by a luxurious, relaxing environment).  Even people who don’t gamble are softened up by the environment and are more likely to give it a go.

Nonetheless, in 2001, the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno published Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition: The Friedman International Standards of Casino Design which expounds upon the 13 essential principles that have long reigned over casino design.

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So, if brainstorming and casino design have been so thoroughly trashed, why are they still being practiced as faithfully as if they had not?  How far back do you have to step to detach sufficiently from any given frame of reference to gain enough perspective to become aware that you are holding beliefs which have been absorbed without due diligence?  Perhaps it’s a matter of having enough time and encouragement to undertake this sort of exercise and in today’s hyper-driven work world, action is prized over reflection which seems like a distraction from the business at hand.

We’ve all had experiences at the individual level when facts could not alter a decision-maker’s strong conviction, even if it was based on faulty assumptions.  But, what is striking about these two examples is that the convictions are held at a macro level and perhaps that is what makes them much harder to dispel.  The utter complexity and momentum of large systems makes it challenging to slow them down.  Until that is, they collapse under their own weight

If system collapse prompts reflection, then perhaps it’s not surprising that in some corners of the fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world of high finance which recently suffered a near total system collapse, just this imperative to confront beliefs is underway.  A body of knowledge is being constructed about the criticality of developing well-defined and explicit investment beliefs at the group level as a key driver of investment performance over the long run.  To me, the fact that finance-types with all their discomfort for the touchy-feely are coming to terms with the limitations of models that are used without ongoing and serious debate about the beliefs that underpin them is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise lemming-like scenario.

This set of observations is closely related to an earlier blog post about how sometimes innovation is based on recovering truths that have been forgotten or discarded and then recovered.  I labeled it “recursive innovation.”   Recursive innovation and what might be called “frame-breaking innovation” share the elusive requirement to adopt a non-mainstream perspective and see where it leads.  But, it’s pretty lonely to break from the pack.

If I had known then what I know now, when my mother asked me whether I would jump off a bridge if my friends did, I would clearly have answered “yes.”  (Rather than try exceedingly hard to justify whatever behavior I had engaged in that crossed some line.)  When practices are ingrained and wide-spread, when they are the received wisdom of an industry, it is nearly impossible to dislodge them.  Even when the facts and results argue against them.  Unless and until, of course, things fall apart.

Sources:

Comments

  1. Excellent essay, Wendi. These are great examples of the phenomenon that why people believe something is only partly a matter of ‘truth’, and has a lot to do with social norms and reinforcement. For centuries, people believed — no, really ‘knew’ — the earth was flat. For centuries, people ‘knew’ the sun rotated around the earth. And so on.

    It’s very important to understand WHY this happens, so we don’t keep making dumb mistakes. It’s even more germane now with the powerful peer-reinforcement mechanisms of the ‘social media’.

    There are several excellent books on why this happens, but my favorite is “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn. Most people know of it by its most famous idea, the paradigm shift. There is a literature on the ‘sociology of knowledge’ that is helpful too.

    Challenging hidden assumptions is a key business strategy skill — but one that, as you point out, often does not make one the most popular girl at the prom.

    Thanks for an excellent and thought-provoking read.

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