Is A Testable Idea Better than A Good Idea?

When I read this article from the Harvard Business Review, I found myself saying, “Yes!” The blog articulates, in business terms, that a good hypothesis is one that is testable. Companies that simply have a wealth of good ideas are, in the end, not very successful.

Author Michael Schrage writes: Organizations that encouraged, talked up and celebrated good ideas were consistent—almost pathological—innovation underachievers. To be sure, there was serious discussion, debate and analysis around good ideas and how to make them better. But the actual outcomes typically underwhelmed and underperformed, as in “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” These firms, teams, and groups made improving good ideas central to their innovation effort. 

He continues: By contrast, the successful innovators I observed spent less time on identifying and developing good ideas and more time testing their hypotheses. In fact, these teams and groups made the testable hypothesis the center of their innovation effort.

Many of the good ideas were very, very good. They were definitely worth developing. But the experiments and their testable hypotheses were ready to go. They provoked a completely different kind of action-oriented discussion than the good ideas. Indeed, a couple of the experiments (as I recall) embodied some aspects of the good ideas. The difference? We could do something with them beyond talk! Testable hypotheses seemed a faster and, frankly, better gateway to innovative action and active innovation. Testable hypotheses encourage and facilitate active experimentation and learning in ways that good ideas simply cannot. Getting organizations to think and act around testable hypotheses instead of good ideas is how organizations have healthier conversation and collaboration around innovation.

hypothesis

Churches are no different than other organizations in this regard. Good ideas abound–ministers, congregants, denominational leaders, conference staff all possess very, very good ideas for enhancing and creating possibilities for ministry. But how many of these ideas are accompanied by hypotheses, as well as the plans (experiments) by which to see whether these hypotheses are confirmed?

For example, an idea to create a second worship service in order to attract younger generations may be a good idea; but a number of testable hypotheses should be created before jumping to direct implementation of this idea. A beginning process around this idea might include the following:

Main hypothesis—Young adults will attend a worship service that is geared toward their attitudes, tastes, and experiences.
Related hypotheses
– Young adults possess a particular set of attitudes, tastes, and experiences that are different than those of the current congregation.
– There are young adults in the area who would be open to attending a newly-created worship service at this church.
– This congregation possesses the resources, time, and skills/talents necessary to develop a second worship service for young adults.

It seems that each of the related hypotheses requires a thoughtful, yet concrete plan of investigation before the main hypothesis can be confirmed or negated. Many times, committees have discussed these hypotheses and provided their own experiences and opinions on the items above; but rarely have groups actively investigated and pursued those hypotheses within their own communities.

Schrage says: If you want to quickly, cheaply and productively transform your organization’s innovation culture, forbid any and all discussion of good ideas and insist people start framing their innovation proposals in the form of a testable hypothesis. Try it.

What do you think? Should all ideas be testable?

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8 thoughts on “Is A Testable Idea Better than A Good Idea?

    • Caren, thank you for raising these questions and for prompting a concrete ministry example for this piece! I did come across a ministry that successfully engaged in this process of hypothesis testing / investigative action research, though it’s not a UCC church (the pastor was formerly ordained UCC). Here is the link to Awakenings Movement and their description of the process they undertook in forming a new ministry with young adults: http://www.awakeningsmovement.com/about-us/ — Blessings!

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      • They engaged in a process of investigation and exploration (what they called an “anthropological study”)–though their hypotheses aren’t named or explicit, they engaged in investigating their community and conducted a planned process of observation which yielded several conclusions with which they could then build their ministry.

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  1. Kristina, I find this article fascinating. I wonder if you could give me an example of how to fill out this part of the concept: “It seems that each of the related hypotheses requires a thoughtful, yet concrete plan of investigation before the main hypothesis can be confirmed or negated.” I’m having a hard time picturing “a concrete plan of investigation.” What might that look like for the example of a second worship service to attract younger people?

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    • Hi Caren, this is a great question! Let me try to elaborate on this further. For example, in developing a plan of investigation for the first related hypothesis that “young adults possess a particular set of attitudes, tastes, and experiences that are different than those of the current congregation,” I would envision an active experiment to be a group of people from your church taking a half-day or day to “split up” and to spend time in the neighborhoods near your church to see what types of places young adults might frequent. I would not only observe, but I would also write down what you see and what you notice. How many young adults were in a particular place? What were they doing? If you didn’t see any younger people, what other generations were present? Or, you might just task a group of people to go about their daily routines for a period of a week but have them pay particular attention to, and write down, when, where and what they see young people doing. Then, you would come together collectively, look at the observation evidence collected, and begin to figure out whether there were patterns in what each of you observed. Do young adults in your area have a particular love of coffee shops? Are they present mostly at night in the neighborhood? How does this inform your hypothesis of young adults possessing particular sets of attitudes, tastes or experiences? If you were so ambitious, I might engage in conversations with young people and ask them what they do for fun, what groups they are a part of, and why they chose to live in this area. Then, I might build on that plan by testing the second hypothesis “that there are young adults in the area who would be open to attending a newly-created worship service at this church.” This is where direct interviewing of young adults would be particularly helpful, or working with someone to put together a survey could be useful. I’d also do some research by exploring the U.S. Census website, the Association for Religion Data Archives, or use MissionInsite (some Conferences have purchased this geographic analysis subscription) to see if I can learn as much as I can about the religious identifications of young people. All of this will inform the overall if, what, why, and how of a second service for young adults. Testing hypotheses and gaining actual evidence to prove or disprove the viability of good ideas, rather than just discussing what might or might not be the case and relying on our own individual perceptions or ideas about something, will lead to more successful programs and ventures in the long run. Hope that helps!

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      • Thank you, Kristina. That is very concrete. Do you know of any UCC congregations who have success with this approach? I am an associate pastor at my church and my Sunday School program is all but dead. It’s been small for several years with just a few families participating. But stuff was happening–fun, creative projects and relationships growing between kids and adults. As of last fall, families just stopped coming. What kind of testable hypotheses might I employ in my situation?

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      • Hi Caren, I know that there are congregations out there that have had success in this area but can’t think of any specific ones at the moment that have used this approach. This kind of assessment and hypothesizing has, however, been used (either explicitly or implicitly) with new church planters who must do the work of testing ideas in a completely new environment. It may be helpful to approach revitalization of your faith formation activities similarly. For your specific example though, I would ask those families specifically why they stopped attending–that would inform any guess/hypothesis you might implicitly have about why this occurred and then go from there.

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