Principles of Design #4 – Not Invented Here

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it”  – Alan Kay

Are you from out of town?

Not invented here (NIH) is a bias against ideas and innovations that originate elsewhere, which effects corporations, institutions and societies causing them to ignore knowledge and ideas which are from outside.  The result of this bias is often poor performance and redundant effort (ie reinventing the wheel).  There are many documented examples, such as Phillips decision to invest time, effort and money in redesigning the toothbrushes of Sonicare when they bought the company, despite any urgent need to do so.  Another well known example is Apple’s refusal to move from one to two mouse buttons when all the research and usability studies showed that two was optimum (of course, they have subsequently dropped the mouse for even better interfaces).

There are four social dynamics which underly such behaviour, closely linked to the features of social identity which we have discussed in other posts.  Groups and organisations tend to believe that their internal capabilities are superior to external capabilities, often fear losing control, desire credit and status for new ideas, and often have considerable ‘sunk costs’ (emotional and financial investment) in their own initiatives.  Where organisations have a strong history of innovation (for example, market research) the perception of superiority can be pervasive and destructive as their past success can blind them to the benefits of external ideas.  Correcting such behaviour can be painful, as it often requires a significant failure or loss to realign the culture of the organisation.  Fear of losing control is also common, particularly where there is a perceived risk of loss of job or status.

Proudly found elsewhere

The best remedy for NIH is to cultivate a culture which is open to new ideas and shares intellectual property both internally and with other relevant groups.  Steven Johnson describes this in a recent TED talk as the ‘coffee house culture’, and others have called it ‘the Medici effect’.  Such open innovation models are increasingly popular, and, for instance, explain the superiority of Linux operating system over other proprietary software platforms which are all too often clear examples of NIH at work.

In recent posts Ray Poynter has discussed the boundaries of market research and market research’s role within the broader category of business intelligence.  I agree with much of his analysis, but would urge market research to embrace new ideas in social media, analytics, neuroscience, epidemiology, behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology to name some of the most significant trends in the industry.

None of these ideas was invented by the market research profession, but I am proud to have found these ideas elsewhere as I think they are the fuel that will fire the future success of our industry.


Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010) Where good ideas come from by Steven Johnson (2010)

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