Shades of Grey

Almost every single time you are offered a black or white choice, the real answer is grey.

This is inconvenient, because we like things to either white or black, right or wrong, easy or hard, incremental or radical. But the simple fact is that all of these are false dichotomies. Nearly everything that is presented to us as an either/or choice usually represents a spectrum.

I was reminded of this again by a passage from Philip Ball’s terrific chapter in Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson. If you are at all interested in science, this book is a must read. Here is Ball’s passage on basic vs. applied research:

A dividing line between pure and applied science makes no sense at all, running as it does in a convoluted path through disciplines, departments, even individual scientific papers and careers. Research aimed at applications fills the pages of the leading journals in physics, chemistry and the life and Earth sciences; curiosity-driven research with no real practical value is abundant in the ‘applied’ literature of the materials, biotechnological and engineering sciences. THe fact that ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science are useful and meaningful terms seduces us sometimes into thinking that they are real, absolute and distinct categories.

We often talk in absolutes because it makes things simpler. I certainly do that here on occasion, especially when I’m trying to make a point. But these dichotomies hide spectrums. Outside of computer programs, where everything is a 1 or a 0, there are very things that are either/or choices. Most things exist along a spectrum.

Innovation isn’t either radical or incremental – it is usually somewhere in between. Thinking and doing are not two opposite activities – they are intricately interlinked, and usually if we’re doing one we’re doing the other as well. Science is not just pure or applied – there are plenty of shades of grey in between. Ball includes a quote from Lord Porter, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and was President of The Royal Society, who said: “There are two types of research, applied and not-yet-applied.” Research exists along a spectrum of applied-ness.

Labels are useful – they help us identify things, and that is important. However, false dichotomies are less useful. Thinking that something must be in only one of two possible states when it is actually somewhere in between leads to mistakes.

Thinking in black and white terms can be comforting, because it’s simple. But it’s a false comfort. You’ll be a better manager and a better innovator if you can learn to identify the various shades of grey.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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