Best Defense

The annals of innovation (11): A few cautions about the inherent bias in studies

OK, while I am waiting for the rest of you to vote in the essay contest, we’re going back to my own thoughts on innovation.

DDT_WWII_soldier

OK, while I am waiting for the rest of you to vote in the essay contest, we’re going back to my own thoughts on innovation.

One thing I’ve noticed in reading studies of innovation is a persistent bias in favor of it, and in favor of the people who introduce and adopt changes.

Innovation tends to be treated as a pure good, when of course it is not. Getting farmers to adopt DDT probably was not such a good thing. I also have to wonder about the long-term effects on the soldier getting sprayed in the photo above.

This ingrown bias makes me think there is a place for a publication with a consciously conservative view of innovation. The military world is a natural venue for this, because the stakes are so big for changing military operations, technologies and policies.

Also, innovations tend to be sold on best case scenarios (“if you introduce this breed of chicken, you’ll have more eggs and meat”) while the military needs to consider the worst (“what if the new chickens are wiped out by local diseases?”). Likewise, on the Kabul-to-Kandahar road, there was (or used to be, when I lived there) a string of ruined bridges paralleling the modern paved road. The old bridges supposedly were built by a German engineer over dry washes. Then they were hit by once-in-a-decade gullywashers. The new road had more submissive concrete reinforced “fords” that dipped down into the roadbed and let the once-in-a-decade rushing water and rocks flow over the surface.

I also think that a lot of innovation is like the fax machine. It seemed big at the time but evaporated quickly. More research needs to be done on innovations that fail, or fizzle out like the fax machine did.

Another area of study would be when to get out. A man who made billions investing in the stock market once said to me, “Anyone can buy a stock. The trick is knowing when to get out.”

So, Rule 11: Always be wary of the studies of innovation.

Photo credit: Public Health Image Library/U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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