Kill false assumptions & evolve

Many of us are making decisions based on false assumptions every single day. In fact we’re underpinning our businesses, organisations, products and personal lives with false assumptions. We keep on doing things that have been proven wrong, that haven been proven not to work, despite mounting evidence that there’s a better way.

Our false assumptions are memes, i.e. viral cultural ideas we pass from human to human, brain to brain (you can read a bit more about memes in my previous post on replicators here). Sometimes we keep spreading memes that aren’t doing us any good, regardless of new information that should illuminate the fact they’re a load of crap.

For example research by MIT, LSE and loads of others confirmed several years ago that our assumption that people perform better when offered a greater financial incentive is wrong. In fact hard evidence demonstrates that when you’re dealing with tasks that require even the most rudimentary cognitive ability, the higher the financial reward you offer the poorer the performance. Surprising, but true. It’s a fact.

Yet still we keep on doing the same old things based on false assumptions, despite the evidence that we’re actually damaging our businesses and our teams’ productivity.

The facts and evidence also tell us what does actually work. What really gets the most out of people and helps them reach peak performance, is autonomy. People like to feel they’re in control of their own destiny – that they’re self-guided; and they want to feel a sense of purpose and mastery. Check out Dan Pink’s commentary on this topic.

If you take these two thoughts – 1. that we’re basing our decisions on how things should be designed on false assumptions; and 2. that people want autonomy – it isn’t difficult to draw conclusions about why platforms like Linux have been so powerful.

The thing is, when we try to design things – technology platforms, mechanisms for rewarding staff, educational programmes – lots of false assumptions come into play. This is precisely why we’ve ditched waterfall development methods in favour of agile methods. It’s risky and expensive to lock yourself in a room for years on end with a massive budget and build something you assume people want; so instead we build a little bit, show the world, learn, tweak, release, learn, tweak, release.

One way to look at optimising how you go about designing your work, life and objects, in a more agile way, is to consider very basic scientific laws and principles.

For instance, consider for a moment how far our human capabilities for designing amazing, functional structures extends. Yep, we’ve designed some pretty cool stuff. But think for a moment, what’s the best designer of all? Look around you. I’d argue that it’s very clear the best designer of all is evolution itself. We only need to look at the complexity and unexpectedness of nature to see that evolution is the ultimate designer.

In fact, organisations, markets, economics, the open source movement – they’re not just like evolutionary systems – they are evolutionary systems. We tend to think of evolution the way we were taught at (linear) school… that it’s just a biology thing; when in fact it’s the most powerful recipe for finding innovative solutions to complex problems.

As philosopher Dan Dennett said, evolution is ‘design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It’s the act of creating a design without a designer. So long as there’s variation, selection and replication – just like the creation and spreading of human memes – you get evolution. So long as there’s variation – like staff with different abilities; selection – a process of choosing the ‘fittest’ talent; and replication – replicating the good stuff they do… you get evolution. You get the optimum way of doing things, without you having to know in advance exactly what that’ll look like.

So, you might be thinking that’s all very well, but how do you harness evolution to get things done in a better way?

Well, the first thing you need to do is stop trying to be the designer. Stop assuming you know which design will work. There’s no way you could’ve drawn a design for Linux or even Wikipedia that was an accurate picture of how it actually turned out. When you assume you’re the designer and you’ll come up with a design that’ll work, you end up spending loads of money, taking loads of time and by the time you unleash your design on the world, it’s outdated and you discover many of your assumptions were wrong and you’re screwed (ask Microsoft).

Companies who fall in love with their designs and cling onto them despite evidence they don’t work will die. Companies who embrace evolutionary principles will thrive. That’s the reason why so many start-ups find success in such unexpected places. Look at Paypal – they started as a PalmPilot app.

The really hard part is dealing with large organisation, with deeply embedded management hierarchies and industrial revolution legacy thinking.

The good news is that the answer lies within. Management doesn’t have to come up with a crazy new design. It’s much easier than that. They just need to create an environment where the optimum design will evolve; and the way to do that is to get out of the way.

Big companies are chocful of hundreds, thousands of brains. The answers lie in there somewhere. The trouble is, traditional top-down communication and top down hierarchical management can’t extract them. These hundreds, thousands of people are desperate to self-guide, to work autonomously, to contribute great innovative leaps – just like MIT and LSE and numerous innovative companies have proved. They just need the ability to work together and to break out of the old siloed routines.

This sounds scarily like losing control to many organisations. And relinquishing control is exactly what it is. But it needn’t be scary. To remove the fear, all that’s required is a universal understanding of some basic rules… and a splash of trust. As John Whitney, a professor at Columbia Business School said, ‘More than half of a traditional organisation’s activities, including the use of time clocks that monitor workers and marketing campaigns designer to win back disappointed customers, are needed only because of mistrust’.

If everyone understands the rules and they aren’t too prohibitive and don’t hamper evolution and autonomy, it’s a recipe for success. By enabling everyone in an organisation to connect with everyone else if they need to, spreading this sort of understanding is easier than ever.

These days it’s startlingly cheap and easy to enable everyone in an organisation to connect with everyone else if they need to.

Simply by questioning assumptions – and by putting basic collaboration tools and systems in place – and by creating a culture of experimentation, of iteration – create, share, test, tweak, create, share, test, tweak – innovations will evolve naturally, teams will be happy and we have a way forward that’s altogether more fulfilling and more aligned with not only the outside world, but our fundamental human nature.


  • You make some very good points that are relevant not just to the private sector, but to international aid agencies. In looking for results from international aid, most agencies nod their heads in the direction of discussing assumptions underlying their development theories, but in practice avoid any detailed examination of assumptions. It is hard to learn what works, if you don't know what the assumptions of all of the participants are – about the problem, about cause and effect, about what else needs to be done, if results are to be achieved.

    And when it comes to implementing a system for planning and reporting on results, many agencies have moved away from simple results frameworks and reporting formats, and toward rigid specification of how results should be reported. But beyond this, they have moved to rigid specification of how you can communicate the ideas and formats to participants – specific materials, specific media (such as PowerPoint – something that Edward Tufte would deplore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>