Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A bit of foolishness

Foolishness is not typically considered beneficial to businesses, except possibly a few minutes of lighthearted fun to relieve the tedium of the workday.

Stanford Business School professor emeritus James G. March thinks, however, that foolishness is an important component of businesses, especially innovative ones. Harvard Business Review interviewed Dr. March in the current issue. And among the many topics he touches on is the need for foolishness.

To March, foolishness is messing around with ideas, trying things out, doing things that aren't rational. Intuition may be a big part of it, or as March says, "a value system that adapts very much to context.") Here's a quote from the interview:

Part of foolishness, or what looks like foolishness, is stealing ideas from a different domain. Someone in economics, for example, may borrow ideas from evolutionary biology, imagining that the ideas might be relevant to evolutionary economics. A scholar who does so will often get the ideas wrong; he may twist and strain them in applying them to his own discipline. But this kind of cross-disciplinary stealing can be very rich and productive. It’s a tricky thing, because foolishness is usually that—foolishness. It can push you to be very creative, but uselessly creative. The chance that someone who knows no physics will be usefully creative in physics must be so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from it. Yet big jumps are likely to come in the form of foolishness that, against long odds, turns out to be valuable.

[Disclaimer: this post itself is a bit of foolishness. I was unable to get access to March's original paper, so I'm relying on the couple of paragraphs in the HBR interview for all my information on this topic. Meaning that I'm investing that brief bit of material with all sorts of my own interpretations, contexts, etc., and in so doing certainly twisting and possibly corrupting March's ideas. I think he'd be pleased.]

So, then, how to apply foolishness to your everyday work? Try something different. Present a tough business problem to your spouse and listen--really listen--to the response. Make a deliberate mistake. Pretend you're the CEO--what would you do differently? Go to the museum and stare at art for a while.

Most likely you'll just be wasting time. But there's a chance that you may stumble on something utterly new.