Opinion

Editorial: Can an idea be good if it hasn’t been criticised?

While researching possible future topics for RealKM, I came across the 2014 HBR article Get Your Team to Do What It Says It’s Going to Do, which lays out the “if-then” methodology for implementation intentions.

On the surface it seems a very attractive and powerful approach. The method claims success in getting people to actually do a task of “medium or high difficulty” if they “prime” their thinking with a specific “if-then” statement such as when it is 2pm on Friday, I will send the weekly status report to my boss.

The evidence of the experiments shows no immediate flaws, and the results seem plausible. Yet two facts became impossible to ignore: that the vast majority of the research on this topic has been done by Peter Gollwitzer, either independently or with co-authors; and the vast majority of articles on the topic have been written by one of his postdoctoral students (Heidi Grant Halvorson).

Let me stress that I have no reason to doubt the complete sincerity and honesty of Gollwitzer and Halvorson in their approach.

However, critical rationalism — one of the few philosophical theories that allows the growth of knowledge without premising the need for “truth” — demands that our theories must be tested against the strongest possible objections and alternative. The alternative that holds up best in the face of these criticisms should be accepted as knowledge and form the basis for our future decisions. When theories are only discussed within a small group, they are rarely criticised. And theories that are not criticised — even when they have experimental support — can only be considered a weak form of knowledge. It the attempt to pull a theory apart that demonstrates its strength, not an experiment that tries to prove it.

For example, the few people who have directly tested implementation intention theory found substantial limitations, such as a 2005 study which found people with self-critical tendencies performed worse when presented with a if-then goal.

The echo chamber effect we see on the Internet is a classic case where popular theories are, almost by definition, not substantially criticised. Unlike the Gollwitzer theories, echo chambers can have hundreds or thousands of participants. But if they are all uncritically accepting the same viewpoint, their knowledge is not being tested and therefore not being strengthened.

Any new idea must necessarily face resistance from people who do not want to change their mind. Narrow acceptance of an idea doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. But the process of pushback, skepticism, and resistance is essential to strengthen and verify knowledge (of it is flawed, to tear it down).

So if you find people who want to challenge your ideas productively, embrace them! They might be the very thing you need to get your idea accepted by others.

Stephen Bounds

Stephen Bounds is an Information and Knowledge Management Specialist with a wide range of experience across the government and private sectors. As founding editor of RealKM and Executive, Information Management at Cordelta, Stephen provides clear strategic thinking along with a hands-on approach to help organisations successfully develop and implement modern information systems.

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