Rethinking is a powerful mindset, which provides an edge in the business world. Two decades ago Phil Tetlock, a political science writer, discovered something peculiar. As we think and talk, we often slip into the mindsets of three different professions: preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. In each of these modes, we take on a particular identity and use a distinct set of tools. We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are at risk: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals. We enter prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we rationalize arguments to prove them wrong and win our case. And we shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents.
The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong, and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own views. (Inspired from “Think Again” by Adam Grant, a must-read recommendation by Bill and Malinda Gates).
Like the above three professions, there is one more profession as scientists. Rethinking is fundamental to this profession. They’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of their understanding. They’re expected to doubt what they know, be curious about what they don’t know, and update their views based on new data.
In the past century alone, the application of scientific principles has led to dramatic progress. Biological scientists discovered penicillin. It’s a group of antibacterial drugs that attack a wide range of bacteria. The discovery and manufacture of penicillins have changed the face of medicine, as these drugs have saved millions of lives. Rocket scientists sent us to the moon. Computer scientists built the internet.
But being a scientist is not just a profession. It’s a frame of mind—a mode of thinking that differs from preaching, prosecuting, and politicking. We move into scientist mode when we’re searching for the truth: we run experiments to test hypotheses and discover knowledge. Scientific tools aren’t reserved for people with white coats and beakers, and using them doesn’t require toiling away for years with a microscope and a petri dish. Hypotheses have as much of a place in our lives as they do in the lab. Experiments can inform our daily decisions. So now: is it possible to train people in other fields to think more like scientists, and if so, do they end up making smarter choices?
An Experiment on Entrepreneurs
Recently, a quartet of European researchers decided to find out. They ran a bold experiment with more than a hundred founders of Italian startups in the technology, retail, furniture, food, health care, leisure, and machinery. Most of the founders’ businesses had yet to bring in any revenue, making it an ideal setting to investigate how teaching scientific thinking would influence the bottom line.
The entrepreneurs arrived in Milan for a training program in entrepreneurship. Over the course of four months, they learned to create a business strategy, interview customers, build a minimum viable product, and then refine a prototype. What they didn’t know was that they’d been randomly assigned to either a “scientific thinking” group or a control group. The training for both groups was identical, except that one was encouraged to view startups through a scientist’s goggles. From that perspective, their strategy is a theory, customer interviews help to develop hypotheses, and their minimum viable product and prototype are experiments to test those hypotheses. Their task is to rigorously measure the results and make decisions based on whether their hypotheses are supported or contradicted.
The Outcome of the Experiment
Over the following year, the startups in the control group averaged under $300 in revenue. The startups in the scientific thinking group averaged over $12,000 in revenue. They brought in revenue more than twice as fast—and attracted customers sooner, too. Why? The entrepreneurs in the control group stay connected to their original strategies and products. It was too easy to preach the virtues of their past decisions, prosecute the vices of alternative options, and politick by catering to advisers who favored the existing direction. The entrepreneurs who had been taught to think like scientists, in contrast, pivoted more than twice as often. When their hypotheses weren’t supported, they knew it was time to rethink their business models.
What’s surprising about these results is that we typically celebrate great entrepreneurs and leaders for being strong-minded and clear-sighted. They’re supposed to be the shining examples of conviction: decisive and certain. Yet evidence reveals that when business executives compete in tournaments to price products, the best strategists are actually slow and unsure. Like careful scientists, they take their time so they have the flexibility to change their minds.
Apple’s Story of Rethinking
“I’m pretty confident that in life, rethinking is an increasingly important habit. Of course, I might be wrong. If I am, I’ll be quick to think again.”- Adam Grant
Our convictions can lock us in prisons of our own making. The solution is not to decelerate our thinking—it’s to accelerate our rethinking. That’s what revived Apple from the brink of bankruptcy to become the world’s most valuable company.
The legend of Apple’s revival revolves around the lone genius of Steve Jobs. It was his conviction and clarity of vision, the story goes, that gave birth to the iPhone. The reality is that he was dead-set against the mobile phone category. His employees had the vision for it, and it was their ability to change his mind that really revived Apple. Although Jobs knew how to “think different,” it was his team that did much of the rethinking.
In 2004, a small group of engineers, designers, and marketers pitched Jobs on turning their hit product, the iPod, into a phone. “Why the f@*& would we want to do that?” Jobs yelled. “That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” The team had recognized that mobile phones were starting to feature the ability to play music, but Jobs was worried about cannibalizing Apple’s thriving iPod business. He hated cell phone companies and didn’t want to design products within the constraints that carriers imposed. When his calls dropped or the software crashed, he would sometimes smash his phone to pieces in frustration. In private meetings and on public stages, he swore over and over that he would never make a phone.
Dramatic Leap in Rethinking (iPhone)
Yet some of Apple’s engineers were already doing research in that area. They worked together to persuade Jobs that he didn’t know what he didn’t know and urged him to doubt his convictions. It might be possible, they argued, to build a smartphone that everyone would love using—and to get the carriers to do it Apple’s way.
The engineers who worked closely with Jobs understood that this was one of the best ways to convince him. They assured him that they weren’t trying to turn Apple into a phone company. It would remain a computer company—they were just taking their existing products and adding a phone on the side. Apple was already putting twenty thousand songs in your pocket, so why wouldn’t they put everything else in your pocket, too? They needed to rethink their technology, but they would preserve their DNA. After six months of discussion, Jobs finally became curious enough to give the effort his blessing,
Two different teams were off to the races in an experiment to test whether they should add calling capabilities to the iPod or turn the Mac into a miniature tablet that doubled as a phone. Just four years after it launched, the iPhone accounted for half of Apple’s revenue. The iPhone represented a dramatic leap in rethinking the smartphone. Since its inception, smartphone innovation has been much more incremental, with different sizes and shapes, better cameras, and longer battery life, but few fundamental changes to the purpose or user experience. The curse of knowledge is that it closes our minds to what we don’t know. Good judgment depends on having the skill—and the will—to open our minds.