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My work spans accelerating independent startups (http://JFDI.Asia), trying to bring technology-to-market and the market-to-technology at National University of Singapore ( and advising a government research lab ( Across all those environments I consistently see intelligent people failing to look for 'prior art' in any form, whether in the research literature or out there in the market. My business partner @mengwong is famous for sending a torpedo into business pitches when, after 20 seconds of googling, he finds numerous existing solutions for the problem a business is trying to solve, typically after hearing the business claim that it 'has no competitors'. The key word there is 'problem' - most of us don't focus on them. As human beings we are hypnotized by the emotion that accompanies the 'Act of Creation' (as Kosetler called it), and we are conditioned from childhood by stories of 'Great Ideas' people from Edison to Jobs. So most of us start with solutions, not problems. Not only do we start out looking down the wrong end of the telescope but we are blinded by powerful but irrational emotions that lead to massive confirmation bias. Perhaps that starts to explain why we don't look into the literature. As to what we might find if we do, the problem there is not just that (as other commenters have pointed out) research tends to follow industry, but also that the literature contains so much noise. Where is the signal? That's the challenge for statups and investors who want to execute. The pressure on academics to churn out papers creates a relatively small stream of primary research, from which it is often hard to generalize, and a snowstorm of commentary by intelligent people, who have made their profession to talk rather than to do, which seems largely disconnected from the real world. Elegant theories butter no parsnips. I am inspired by the way that a new science of startups, based around tools including Lean Innovation methods, is encouraging rigorous formulation of hypotheses about the unknown and systematic testing to get products and services right from the start. We don't expect the certainty of an old-school physical science experiment, but we do expect to create evidence for the patterns that we believe we are seeing. Perhaps social scientists who want to be taken seriously should test their theories in a startup environment, backing them with their own money.
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Jun 8, 2014