Business requires innovation, but in the 21st century innovations are increasingly intangible. The great 20th century innovations – the refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner, the desktop computer – are material products you can grab hold of. In contrast, many of the great 21st century innovations will be immaterial. We’re living in a time of conceptual innovation. Just look at some of the big businesses born this century. Air BnB didn’t innovate a material product – they innovated an idea. So did Uber. So did Facebook. They were inspired to use existing technology in unexpected ways. Their innovations are worth billions of dollars, yet are completely intangible.
Philosophy is the study of concepts and ideas, and philosophers are in the business of creating new and improved ways of thinking about the world. In other words, philosophers specialise in conceptual innovation. Many of the methods philosophers use to innovate new ideas can be easily applied in the business world. One of the most important lessons to take from philosophy is that innovation requires us to ask ‘why?’. Everything we do is based on assumptions, and philosophers seek to scrutinise those assumptions. When you discover that one of your assumptions doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, you’re given the opportunity to replace it with a better way of thinking. Put another way, questioning your assumptions gives you the opportunity to conceptually innovate.
Philosophy isn’t the only discipline that questions assumptions. Elon Musk – one of the business world’s great innovators – says that the best way to innovate is to apply the method of physics. You can see his talk here. The method of physics is to strip away your assumptions until you get to first principles, and then to build everything up from there. This is certainly a step in the right direction, but as someone who uses the methods of philosophy my question is this: Why stop at first principles? What if your so-called ‘first principles’ are mistaken? What if challenging those principles is what’s needed to open up the next big conceptual innovation? To become better conceptual innovators, we have to embrace what I call the infinite ‘why?’. To embrace the infinite why is to recognise that there’s no end-point to enquiry. Once you start questioning your assumptions, you should never stop. You’ve got to keep on asking!
A nice example of a business that questioned their first principles is Netflix. In the early days of Netflix, they were in the business of taking other companies’ films and TV shows and delivering them to customers online. If you had to pin down the ‘first principle’ of Netflix, you’d say that they are an intermediary between the producers and consumers of media. Of course, someone at Netflix was inquisitive enough to question this putative first principle. They asked ‘why can’t we make our own media?’ This conceptual innovation paved the way for Netflix to develop their own films and TV shows, and to become a much stronger business as a consequence.
Each one of us has gone through a phase of questioning everything. At about the age of 3, we reach a crucial cognitive milestone: we begin to ask ‘why?’ We want to know why things are the way they are, and we won’t accept ‘it just is’ as an answer. Somewhere along the line, we lose that habit. Perhaps it’s because we spend so much time in why-resistant environments. The world of adults doesn’t welcome having its assumptions questioned, but if there’s one thing philosophy teaches us it’s that those assumptions need to be questioned. In order to become better conceptual innovators, whether in life or in business, we need to find a way of returning to the inquisitive mind-set we had when we were 3 years old. We need to remember how to ask ‘why?’