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Seeing What's Not There

"Evidence was the name we gave to what we had, but what about the things we hadn't found? Sometimes, the things that were missing were of far greater importance."

In Terry Hayes' superb action thriller, I Am Pilgrim, the protagonist is an investigator who acknowledges that 'evidence' doesn't include what wasn't discovered. As much as I enjoyed the story itself, best described by one reviewer as "unputdownable", I was even more struck by how this perspective on evidence is just as applicable to innovation efforts. If the topic of a previous post about inattentional blindness highlights one weakness in our cognitive capabilities, then the tendency to not notice or even think about what's not visible represents another.

To illustrate this further, we turn to another skilled literary detective, Sherlock Holmes. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short story, Silver Blaze, Holmes is asked to help solve a mystery in which a prized racehorse has been stolen from the owner's stable in the middle of the night. Upon learning the normally aggressive guard dog had not raised a ruckus during the evening in question, Holmes has this exchange with the police inspector in charge:

Inspector Gregory: “Is there any point to which you wish to draw my attention?"

Sherlock Holmes: "The curious incident of the dog in the night time."

Inspector Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night time."

Sherlock Holmes: “That was the curious incident."

Holmes uses this absence of action to deduce that the person who stole the horse must have been familiar to the dog. Clever chap, that Holmes.

Of course, astute powers of observation have been the hallmark of fictional detectives from Colombo to Patrick Jane, so it's no surprise this attribute makes an appearance in I Am Pilgrim. But in The 46 Rules of Genius: An Innovator's Guide to Creativity, author, designer, and business adviser Marty Neumeier argues that "seeing what's not there" is one of the skills that separates innovation leaders from innovation followers. Riffing off of

the concept of 'negative space' from the world of art, he offers techniques for mining the "negative space in the marketplace." For example, instead of simply defending against threats, we should also sift through them in search of opportunities. Kind of an innovation jiu-jitsu, if you will. It's not easy, but can be done if we remind ourselves to take note of what's not there.

The reference to the martial arts brings one more story to mind, this time from the annals of WWII. The Allies were searching for a way to improve the odds that their bombers would make it back home safely. Engineers knew that they should add more armor, but where? They decided to let the data lead the way, examining and charting all of the bullet holes in the planes that returned. At first glance, it seemed obvious to the commanders that the most effective place for additional armor was in the areas with the

Bomber hits

greatest concentration of damage. Luckily, a statistician named Abraham Wald pointed out that they were failing to take into account what they weren't seeing, namely the planes that hadn't made it back. In other words, the aircraft they had examined, which had all survived their missions, were actually showing where they could absorb enemy fire and still fly. So although counterintuitive, the smart move was to add more armor where the surviving planes had little to no damage.*

Whether in the service of pursuing new product opportunities or searching for solutions to intractable problems, how and what we see has a big impact on what we find. Or overlook. Consciously taking stock of what's NOT happening is certainly not elementary, dear Watson, but awareness, like with so many other human conditions, is the first step toward change for the better.

*For an in-depth look into the story of Abraham Wald and the U.S. Army's Statistical Research Group, check out the post on survivorship bias at the You Are Not So Smart blog.


(Note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn by David Phillips in January 2015.)

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