One of the frustrating things about following politics is the idea, apparently deeply engrained, that you must never change your mind. If you do, you’re a flip-flopper, or wishy-washy, and you’re clearly not to be trusted.
The main problem with this line of thinking is that it is utterly and dangerously wrong. We live in a dynamic world, and our brains are dynamic – if you’re not changing your mind all the time, it’s a danger sign.
There are two very good reasons to change your mind: the facts have changed, or you have learned something.
To those of us that take innovation seriously, Joseph Schumpeter is the patron saint of economists. He was the first person to really articulate the importance of innovation and how central it is to economic growth. Just to give you an idea of how important he is, here is a picture of picking out a new kitten last year, who is now named Schumpeter!
One question that Schumpeter considered in his first groundbreaking book, The Theory of Economic Development, is this: which type of firm is more innovative – small or large?
It’s a question he kept coming back to. Here is how Adrian Wooldridge put it in The Economist (and in another signal of the regard in which Schumpeter is held, his weekly column there is called “Schumpeter”):
Joseph Schumpeter, after whom this column is named, argued both sides of the case. In 1909 he said that small companies were more inventive. In 1942 he reversed himself. Big firms have more incentive to invest in new products, he decided, because they can sell them to more people and reap greater rewards more quickly. In a competitive market, inventions are quickly imitated, so a small inventor’s investment often fails to pay off.
Now, the big or small question is still interesting, but that’s not what I’m concerned with today. Instead, look at how he phrases this – “Schumpeter… argued both sides of the case.” This idea often comes up, and people usually try to say that Schumpeter was being slippery by trying to have things both ways.
But here’s the thing – Schumpeter changed his mind because the facts changed. In 1909, big firms didn’t innovate at all. The largest firms were mostly extractive. Nearly all new ideas came from smaller firms. Corporate R&D was just starting at the time, in Edison’s workshop and in the labs of the chemical companies that were trying to make new dyes for clothes.
A lot changed between then and the 1940s, including the innovation process. By the middle of the century, invention and innovation both were dominated by large corporate R&D. That was the birth of the mass market, an economic environment built by and favouring large firms.
Schumpeter changed his mind because the facts changed.
Here’s a quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes:
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
One of the implications implicit in that quote is that Keynes was always right. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t as infallible as he was. So we have to learn by being wrong.
This is a crucial innovation skill. We have a hypothesis about how we can make the world a better place – we have a great idea. The only way to turn it into an innovation is to experiment.
Often, our initial assumptions are wrong. By experimenting, we figure out which ideas work, and which don’t – we learn. And by learning, we change our minds.
Dynamics Minds for Dynamic Times
We live in a dynamic world. More importantly, we are learning machines. Both of these facts mean that we should be changing our minds all of the time. Rather than being a sign of weakness, a changed mind is a sign of someone that knows something more than they used to.
We should be learning all the time. Changing your mind is a sign of learning. We shouldn’t avoid it, we should seek it out. As Edward de Bono says:
If you never change your mind, why have one?