Nadworny: Illogical Steps

May 15, 2017

If you’re trying to come up with that Next Big Thing you should know that the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office will only award a patent if it includes an “illogical step.” I love that. But it also makes me think hard about how it’s possible to find or create illogical steps.

Recent behavioral- and neuro-science research has helped us to better understand irrational and illogical behavior. Books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational have shown us that we humans don’t act rationally or logically much of the time. Instead, the behaviors that drive us have their foundations in biases, influences and our history.

One of the reasons I enjoy working with the design thinking process so much is that it offers a particularly helpful way to become more aware of those illogical or irrational steps. We do this primarily through contextual observation: we watch what people actually do and listen to them as they describe their actions.

It’s also why we place a premium on the “extreme” user. That is, people who are very, very good or very, very bad at doing things. Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen suggests finding innovations by observing the rule benders and the law breakers.

Frank Gilbreth, an early innovator in Scientific Management, and hero in the Cheaper by The Dozen book, used to study the laziest person in the factory. His reasoning was that this person would find the best shortcuts - the illogical steps, if you will – for getting the job done.

But even when you’re consciously looking for that illogic, it’s not easy to find.

I’ve seen Nobel Prize winners on Swedish TV, describe how their winning idea came from an anomaly they noticed when doing experiments they’d done hundreds of times before. And the curiosity to figure out what had changed led to their great discoveries.

The trick is to observe things until a break in the pattern appears, something that doesn’t fit. That’s the illogical step, the seed to the breakthrough idea.

And that’s why design thinking is such a good innovation tool. It forces us to practice our observation and ethnography skills. It makes us get out of our office and spend time with illogical and irrational humans: our customers.

More importantly, it forces us to embrace the unusual and irrational and celebrate our human foibles as the true driver of innovation.