One of my favorite quotes is from fabled IBM engineer Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about other people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” When I show this in a presentation it always elicits a wry smile since most people have seen this happen. It’s easy to understand why—in their nascent stages, breakthrough ideas are rough, full of holes, easy to find fault with. The more radical an idea and the more it challenges conventional thinking, the harder it can be to see the value in it at first. Sometimes even the person who came up with the idea can’t say exactly why the idea seems compelling, so they fumble around for explanations and try to interest others.
But this pattern of having the idea before you understand why it’s great and before you can rationalize it logically is one of the most powerful tools in an innovator’s kit. We just have to give ourselves permission to use it.
Our educations tend to emphasize a linear path to having new ideas: research, analyze, deduce, solve. Unfortunately, creativity is usually much messier than this simple model. The subconscious is a powerful tool for generating unexpected ideas—ideas that at first can be hard to explain. We probably have all had the “lightning bolt” experience of being distracted and relaxed, and having an idea or a solution come out of the blue. I commute by train to work, and I often find that my best ideas come while traveling home from work and reading a book or listening to music. That’s the subconscious helping along the creative process, working away in the background without feeling constrained by the same assumptions as your conscious mind.
It is one thing to have the idea, quite another to understand its possibilities and implications. Some lightning bolt inspirations are indeed junk, but some of them really strike at something valuable. It’s just not always clear what that value is.
This is where post-rationalization comes in. Post-rationalization is simply working out if and why something is valuable after you’ve already come up with the solution. It’s a much-maligned approach, as it can be an excuse for laziness or sloppy technique. For example, a research study can be skewed to confirm a pre-existing hypothesis, cherry-picking the data to make it fit a desired outcome. When we read a horoscope, we rationalize its banal description to make it fit our current life (and ignore the parts of the reading that don’t fit). This is the dark side of post-rationalization. Logically-minded people tend to look down on it, as it puts the cart (solution) before the horse (evidence).
But don’t let that deter you from being open to the benefits of post-rationalization!
By freeing yourself from having to deduce a creative idea from existing data, you can open up whole new territories of opportunity. Many of the ideas may be wrong, but some of them won’t be, and chances are you wouldn’t have come up with those (or come up with them as quickly) with the traditional linear approach.
Trust your gut instincts—if an idea seems to have that spark that says, “Something is here that I can’t quite put my finger on,” then follow the thread. As Howard Aiken found, there will be many people who won’t get it right away, but if you see the value, keep going. (If you find yourself obsessively scribbling the idea all over your walls, however, it might be time to take a step back ... every idea has its limits.)
With a promising idea in hand, you can start to investigate its merit. Obviously, this should be done objectively, but with the idea already there you may be inspired to look at supporting data that you might not otherwise have thought of. Or re-cluster existing data in a new way that sheds a different light on your findings. A given set of data rarely points to a single conclusion, but it’s easy for us to get into a data rut.
Make a quick prototype or simulation of the idea—sketch, spreadsheet, cardboard model, whatever works—and start to gather feedback on it. Often people react differently to a material expression of something than they do with an abstract statement of an idea, which is why focus groups that use the common technique of visualizing and describing new product concepts on cards often throw away good ideas prematurely. Doing quick simulation has never been easier or cheaper.
Post-rationalization is not as alien as it may appear at first. It’s like a looser version of the scientific method, which sets out to test hypotheses through iterative experimentation. You have some data, you develop a hypothesis which may or may not conform exactly to the data, then you test to see if the hypothesis holds up or not. If not, you either modify the hypothesis, or if you believe strongly enough in it, you see if there’s some other data to help explain it. This is how Einstein arrived at E=MC2. He believed strongly in the counter-intuitive idea that energy and mass were interchangeable—so strongly that he spent a decade trying to find the mathematical rationale for it, with E=MC2 being the result. Science is replete with anecdotes about intuition leading to empirical breakthroughs.
Post-rationalization is not a replacement for the deduction-based approach; they are complementary. But if you’re feeling stuck, or finding that relying on deduction is leading only to incremental, me-too, familiar ideas, post-rationalization may be just the ticket for helping find that next breakthrough. If you’re idea really is good, you’ll find the rationale to justify it to others.