If I asked you, what you think, ancient Greek philosophy and modern innovation practice have in common, you would probably answer not a lot, if anything.
But you would be surprised.
The most successful methodologies applied in successful tech companies and start-ups, is the methodology that Socrates practiced in the streets of Athens 2500 years ago.
Tech giants and start-ups alike are daily utilizing a simple practice: They test their assumptions with experiments. And they do it daily.
When a tech giant or a start-up has an assumption about a customer preference, they test it. They run experiments, such as split test or landing page tests. They then monitor customer behaviour and use the learnings for how to optimize their business.
This makes sales constantly become more efficient. Amazon and Microsoft are known for making thousands of such experiments a day. If you are more curious about this, I recommend this Harvard Business Review article “The Surprising Power of Online Experiments”.
A good introduction to this practice has been written by Eric Ries, who has formalized this practice for start-ups and innovation in Lean Start Up. Which I highly recommend. It is basically an approach to innovation, which argues that you should constantly be looking for your business ideas’ most important assumptions and test them. You should look for the premises on which your business case is grounded and ask yourself: How sure am I of each of these assumptions/premises? The ones that your business case is most dependent on and you are most uncertain of, you should test with an experiment. It takes some creativity and understanding of how to run experiments, but it can save you a lot of time, money, and frustrations.
But how does that relate to ancient Greek philosophy? More than you would think.
Socrates, the philosopher, which Plato wrote about, was known for wandering the streets of Athens and asking citizens of Athens different questions. A task he was in the end killed for. But that is another story. In one of the dialogues that Plato writes about Socrates, Socrates has been told by the Delphi Oracle, Pythia, that he is the wisest man in the world.
This leaves Socrates baffled. He does not see himself as the wisest man in the world. Not by far. There is so much he does not know for sure – so much he is curious about, but uncertain of.
Therefore, out of curiosity, Socrates seeks out a politician, known for his wisdom. In the dialogue with the politician, Socrates tries to understand why, he himself, should be wiser, than this known-to-be wise politician.
Together in the dialogue they explore and share, what they know about justice. The difference quickly becomes clear. Socrates knows that he does not know, and the politician thinks, that he knows.
How does this relate to big tech, start-ups, and Lean Startup? Socrates has a hypothesis. He is supposedly the wisest man in the world. A hypothesis he has a hard time believing. He then sets out to test this hypothesis, by setting up an experiment. He then reflects on the findings and defines his learning:
“So I went away, but with this reflection that anyhow I was wiser than this man; for, though in all probability neither of us knows anything, he thought he did when he did not, whereas I neither knew anything nor imagined I did.”
And the approach is incredibly important to this day, which is why both big tech and start-ups alike are using the approach. Being wise is often simply knowing, that you do not know.
Knowing something, or all, is clearly preferred, but to get to knowledge, we need first to realize, that we do not know. And without that intermediate step, we can’t reach knowing. And most of us never manage to take the first step of realizing, we do not know.
This is what Plato teaches us with his writing about Socrates. It is what Lean Start Up preaches. It is what modern tech companies and start-ups are practicing: Testing assumptions. Experiment. Reflect. Learn.
Dare to risk being wrong and learn from it. Explore what you do not know.
And this is where modern innovation theories, entrepreneurship, and Socrates have an important practice in common. They test their assumptions. They find creative ways of experimenting with what they wish to learn more about. They understand that they probably know a lot less, than they think they know.
And finally remember: An experiment does not have to be complicated. As Plato taught us, a simple dialogue can be a sound first step.