April 18, 2014

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Fundamentals of Disruption

We are all aware of the old wisdom: ‘Assume’ is spelt ass + u + me. If you assume something there is a very high possibility that you will make a donkey of me. Most projects fail when assumptions remain unstated. Therefore, recording assumptions are encouraged. Every assumption has an associated risk. Every risk has a possible negative impact. So assumptions are the root of all evil, right? Wrong! Assumptions are our best friends and I will tell you why and, also, how you can use it to disrupt whatever that you are trying to disrupt.

I will illustrate my assumptions-are-good theory with examples from the past. Here goes …

Some time in the mid-seventeenth century, a young man was on the verge of a landmark discovery that would change the very course of rational thinking. This young man was trying to prove that the motion of an apple and that of the planets are essentially the same. But he was flummoxed. To prove his theory he had to deal with infinitely small entities, such as time, that would be almost zero. There existed no mathematics that supported this. What do you think Newton did – yes! the young man was Isaac Newton – he assumed  that infinitesimally small  time can exist and went on to invent Calculus to prove his theory of motion.

Fast forward to early 20th century … Scientists were puzzled by the fact that the speed of light appeared constant. Numerous theories were advanced, but the most popular theory was that the universe is filled with ether, and that ether expanded and contracted in such a way that the speed of light appeared constant to us. Along came a young clerk working in the Swiss Patent Office who responded to the name Albert Einstein. He did not bother to discover why the speed of light appeared constant; he merely assumed that the speed of light is constant and gave us the Special Theory of Relativity.

Our final story began in 300 BC. As longevity and fundamentals go, Euclid’s Elements, compiled in 300BC, is perhaps the greatest book of all times. You may have hated it, but we all studied his geometry in our school. The bases of the entire Euclidean Geometry are 5 postulates. It is the 5th postulate (aka the parallel postulate) that is a bit troublesome. The 5th postulate is the reason why the sum of angle of a triangle on a plane is proved to be 180 deg. But the mathematicians considered the 5th postulate to be too complicated and hence not fundamental. For 1000’s of years mathematicians have tried to prove the 5th postulate using the other 4.  Then, in 1773, a Jesuit by the name Girolamo Saccheri, tried to proof the 5th postulate by ‘proof by contradiction’. He assumed that the 5th postulate is incorrect and that the sum of the angles of a triangle is less than 180 deg. Saccheri must have considered himself to be a major failure because he could not find a proof to contradict his assumption. But his work yielded what is now known as Hyperbolic Geometry, a non-Euclidean Geometry. Subsequently another non-Euclidean Geometry, Elliptic Geometry, was discovered. Each of these geometries is completely consistent. So, now we have three types of geometry and no one knows if nature is Euclidean, Hyperbolic or Elliptic.

I could go on, but I think I have made my point. There are numerous such stories in the history when men (and women), who were brave enough to make crazy assumptions, went on to disrupt the paradigm of the day. Newton’s assumption broke the back of the dark ages; Einstein’s went on to prove that Newton was so wrong about gravity; and thanks to Saccheri we have multiple geometries.

We can now safely state the basis of disruption: The next time you wish to disrupt an existing truth, technology or a business model, look out for issues that everyone is trying desperately to get associated with or taking for granted. Then make a wild, crazy assumption and see where it leads you. You will be surprised what you come up with and the world will stand up to clap.

References:

[1] For a non-dumbed down but easily accessible treatment of Hyperbolic and Elliptical Geometry, I recommend ‘The Road to Reality’ by Roger Penrose.

[2] Elements by Euclid is still sold; you can order it online.