Mysteries and R&D

I was at dinner at the Peacock Inn in Princeton, NJ with a consultant colleague. We were discussing client business when he mentioned that in his spare time he was an amateur magician. He pulled out a quarter, put it on the back of his hand, and waved his other hand across the quarter making it disappear.

That was pretty neat!

I went on with our client discussion without further commenting on the trick.

You’re the first person who didn’t ask me how I did the trick.

It never even occurred to me to ask the magician his secret. I didn’t really want to know. I preferred to revel in the mystery – to sleep on it.

In his widely discussed article Open Secrets, Malcolm Gladwell argues that many areas of investigation mentioned in this website (i.e., medicine, intelligence gathering, and criminal investigations) are being transformed from puzzles into mysteries. Puzzles are characterized by the need to pull together the pieces, with each discipline contributing puzzle pieces which are matter-of-factly pulled together at the end. Mysteries on the other hand are characterized by too much information, especially misleading information. All the relevant information is publicly available, but the sophistication to ferret through the information needs a team that is as sophisticated as the purveyor of the information. A cutting edge article can only be critically reviewed by someone working at the cutting edge. As Gladwell comments, all the information needed to see that Enron, the energy giant, was collapsing, had been widely available to anyone who cared to read their voluminous SEC filings. However, Enron had entangled its finances in ‘very, very sophisticated, complex transactions’ that only someone as sophisticated as a senior partner in an audit firm would have been able to disentangle.

Mysteries by their nature involve non-linear thinking, mentally bouncing back and forth from in vitro to in human to the drawing board, with a little in vivo thrown in for good measure. Mysteries attract certain kinds of minds. They go beyond curiosity. It’s almost a childlike fascination. Importantly they attract and fascinate the imagination. It may seem out of place I would argue for a seat at the table for irrationality in an enterprise as scientific as R&D, but people need mystery. They need paradox and uncharted white space on the map that they can fill in with their imagination.

The only thing that comes out of that pharmaceutical research facility is the traffic from the parking lot at 5:00 pm.

So mystery plays two roles – it keeps interest alive and it improves performance by developing non-linear thinking. Don’t ask the magician his secrets – uncover them yourself.

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