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Connecting to the counterculture: the interview guide.

Blockchain, digital twins, digital familiars, digital business platforms, digital currencies--all complex, arcane, and even magical-seeming inventions--are being conceived by a counterculture of academics, students, researchers, inventors, hackers, and hobbyists intent on changing the world. Some of these innovations will take hold, becoming the warp and weft of everyday life. Others may have less broadly felt impacts. But all will affect the way innovation happens. They are part of a wave of digital disruption that will upend many traditional businesses. Executives in those businesses need to understand these inventions, and the disruptions they herald because misunderstanding them, or missing them altogether, could be fatal to their businesses.

It's common sense that the best way to begin understanding digital disruption is by talking with the people at the epicenter of it. Yet, in my experience, many executives come to these conversations unprepared to ask the deep questions that will build real understanding. That's why I believe every executive should prepare an interview guide--a set of questions to ask innovators--before every interview.

The aim of your interview guide should be to capture the argument the innovator is making. Understanding the argument will give you the architecture for the interview itself and for your analysis. I've maintained elsewhere that all innovations are arguments in the form If P then Q, where P is an invention and Q a paradigm of empowerment (Wright 2012). The statement that innovations are arguments is more than just a convenient way to define innovation. Rather, it is an identity: Innovation = Argument. Innovations are always arguments because by definition argument contains inference--and innovation is always about making inferences:

Argument is discourse containing inference. Such discourse may be written, spoken, gestured, or thought. It may be long or short, rhymed or unrhymed, wise or foolish. The manner in which it is expressed is irrelevant. It may be about tornadoes or tadpoles, about art or morals, about dust or dew--its subject matter is also irrelevant. So long as it contains inference, it is argument. And only discourse containing inference is argument. (Castell 1935, p. 3)

Every invention--a steam engine, a telegraph, a hypodermic needle--brings with it the inference that it will empower humans: to do superhuman mechanical work, to escape the tyranny of distance through instant communication, to live longer by allowing new kinds of treatment.

The idea that innovations are arguments provides an extraordinarily useful architecture to build an interview guide because arguments can be analyzed and criticized. Most important, fallacies--unjustified inferences based on, for instance, false analogies, false dilemmas, or non sequiturs--have been analyzed and categorized by logicians, making it possible to sort valid arguments from false ones. If you keep If P (an invention) then Q (a paradigm of empowerment) in mind, you can structure your questions to probe for the P and Q of the particular innovation you're considering and then decide whether that P and Q add up to a valid argument or rely on a logical fallacy.

To do that, you need the answers to three questions:

1. What is the invention and how does it work?

2. What problems does the invention solve and why are they important?

3. How will the invention empower humans?

The first question is extremely important because the technology of the invention constitutes a set of facts supporting the argument. If you don't understand that technology, or have only a fuzzy grasp of it, you may not understand the argument. The second question captures the inference in the argument; the problems an invention solves are the lynchpin connecting P and Q. It is very important to understand the particular problems an innovation addresses and why they are more important than other problems that might have been addressed. You need to determine whether the invention will actually solve the problems the innovator is claiming it will. The third question is important because you need to determine whether solving the problems the innovator is claiming to solve will bring about a vision--a paradigm of empowerment. This last step is often the most difficult because it deals almost entirely with imagination--you're asking the innovator to explain the kind of future his invention will make possible, and you're trying to imagine it yourself. As Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." In my experience, the number one reason for being bypassed by the "next big thing" is lack of imagination.

Why write down and analyze the argument of the innovator you are interviewing? Because, as Castell says, "It is generally fatal to criticize an argument you don't understand" (Castell 1935, p. 11). Capturing the argument, uncovering the P and Q and the logic that connects them, is essential to making a decision about whether to invest in an invention or not. The case of Segway offers an illustration of the value of this approach. A Time reporter developed answers to these three questions about the Segway when he interviewed Dean Kamen:

Kamen's vehicle is a complex bundle of hardware and software that mimics the human body's ability to maintain its balance. Not only does it have no brakes, it also has no engine, no throttle, no gearshift and no steering wheel. And it can carry the average rider for a full day, nonstop, on only five cents' worth of electricity. He believes the Segway "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." He imagines them everywhere: in parks and at Disneyland, on battlefields and factory floors, but especially on downtown sidewalks from Seattle to Shanghai. "Cars are great for going long distances," Kamen says, "but it makes no sense at all for people in cities to use a 4,000-lb. piece of metal to haul their 150-lb. asses around town." In the future he envisions, cars will be banished from urban centers to make room for millions of "empowered pedestrians"--empowered, naturally, by Kamen's brainchild. By traveling at three or four times walking speed, and thus turning what would have been a 30-minute walk into a 10-minute ride, Kamen contends, Segways will in effect shrink cities to the point where cars "will not only be undesirable, but unnecessary." (Heilemann 2001)

Kamen is making several arguments in this passage. Let's analyze them, one by one.

Argument 1: If the car replaced the horse and buggy, then by analogy, Segway will replace the car.

The essence of Kamen's argument is this: the relation between the car and the horse and buggy is analogous to the relation between the Segway and the car. This is argument by analogy. If we admit the first half of the analogy, then we should admit the second, so the argument claims. The argument depends upon the strength of the analogy--and this strength depends upon the importance of the resemblances and the unimportance of the differences between the terms that constitute the analogy. The resemblances must be essential while the differences unessential. While a resemblance might be that the car and Segway both solve problems of air pollution--it was widely thought that the advent of the automobile would end air pollution in cities caused by horse manure being pulverized into fine dust by buggy wheels (Bettmann 1974)--the resemblances are few and unimportant. But the differences are great and essential: the car replaced the horse and buggy because it traveled ten times faster than, and under weather and road conditions that would stop, a horse-drawn wagon. Segway does not replace the car--it replaces walking. Hence, this is a false analogy.

Argument 2: If cars are banished from urban centers, then Segways will replace walking.

This argument states that if cars are banned from city centers, then people will have no option but to walk. But busses, subways, trams, motor scooters, bicycles, and moving sidewalks all offer alternatives to walking. This is a false dilemma.

Argument 3: If Segway can turn a 30-minute walk into a 10-minute ride, then cities will in effect shrink to the point where cars will be not only undesirable but unnecessary.

The heart of this argument is that Segway will make cars unnecessary by replacing them for short trips within cities. But the majority of cars within cities are commuters and not ones making short trips. For example, more than 220 vehicles cross from New Jersey into New York City per minute, or almost 290,000 per day (Templon 2014). Thus, although it may be true that Segway can turn a 30-minute walk into a 10-minute ride, it does not follow that that will shrink cities to the point that cars will be unnecessary. What about all the commuters driving into cities? This argument is the fallacy of non sequitur.

This kind of interview approach might have helped investors like John Doerr, the venture capitalist behind Netscape,, and then Segway, explore the merits of Kamen's arguments. A logical analysis of the argument underlying the Segway may have led Doerr away from his conclusion that Segway Co. would be "the fastest outfit in history to reach $1 billion in sales" (Heilemann 2001).

But, apparently, those investors didn't engage in this kind of analysis. I believe there are two reasons. The first is argumentum ad verecundiam, or the fallacy of argument from authority. The Segway came to market with an impressive weight of authority behind it. Besides its inventor Dean Kamen--inventor of the first drug-infusion pump, the first portable insulin pump, the first portable dialysis machine, and heart stents, and holder of more than 400 patents--the Segway also attracted the support of a number of tech luminaries: Steve Jobs proclaimed that it could be "as big a deal as the PC," Intel's skeptical Andy Grove predicted that "the company will be busy for the next five years just keeping up with demand," and John Doerr said the scooter "may be bigger than the Internet" (Heilemann 2001). It may be hard to see beyond all that optimism from such well known figures, but you have to look beyond the authorities behind a given invention, particularly a widely hyped one. Dean, Steve, Andy, and John think the Segway is a sure thing, but what of it? Their opinions are not relevant to the argument that the Segway should replace walking in cities.

The second reason for investors' misreading of Segway's potential is that they allowed themselves to be enamored by the technology--one element of the argument--to the exclusion of the entire argument. Segway looks like a baffling magic trick, a veritable witch's broom on wheels, worthy of Penn & Teller. But getting distracted by what it is keeps us from exploring what it means. And what it means is the key to what it's worth.

DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2017.1348121


Bettmann, O. 1974. The Good Old Days-They Were Terrible! New York: Random House.

Castell, A. 1935. A College Logic., vol. 3. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Heilemann, J. 2001. Reinventing the wheel. Time, December 2. http:// 0,8599,186660,OO.html

Tempion, J. 2014. 9 delightfully geeky stats about NYC bridges and tunnels. BuzzFeed, July 21. https:// tunnels.

Wright, R. S. 2012. Why innovations are arguments. MIT Sloan Management Review 53(3):95-96. http:// re-arguments/.

Randall S. Wright is a senior liaison officer with MIT's Industrial Liaison Program. In that role, he leads teams of researchers and faculty members in providing ongoing emerging technology intelligence and strategic advice for the world's leading technology companies; he is involved in the creation, development, and execution of research programs that link industry and MIT. He is also an invited lecturer at Northeastern University's Executive MBA Program, where he lectures on innovation and corporate strategy. He has been awarded the Decoration for Service to the Republic of Austria in Gold for "his outstanding contribution to the development of relations between Austria and MIT."
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Author:Wright, Randall S.
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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