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Not Invented Here Syndrome explained


How an undetected problem might be hurting your learning product.

Regardless of what we create–a toy box, a new source of electricity, a new mathematical theorem–much of what really matters to us is that it is our creation. As long as we create it, we tend to feel rather certain that it’s more useful and important than similar ideas that other people come up with.”  

–  The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely

A decade of poor decisions by Apple culminated in a $1 billion loss in 1997, which was the same year Steve Jobs made his triumphant return to the company he’d co-founded. The dire situation had been caused by what’s been described as the “reality distortion field” surrounding the company’s decision-makers, who rejected solutions that didn’t originate within the inner circle. 

Jobs managed to revitalize Apple by abandoning the company’s conventional thinking–which had led to a sprawling range–and cutting the number of products by 70%. Ultimately, new thinking such as this took the company from the brink of bankruptcy to becoming arguably the most powerful brand in the world.

However, recent years have seen a backslide in Apple’s decision-making.

The sapphire screen debacle with GT Advanced Technologies put a spotlight on the strict control that the tech giant exerts over its suppliers, while its closed-source software model means that iOS possesses less scope for innovation than Android. 

"Many companies have experienced decline because they’ve refused to accept ideas that originated elsewhere until it was too late." Click To Tweet

These signs of regression reveal that Apple has forgotten how Jobs managed to turn the company around back in 1997: by escaping their internal reality distortion field and embracing external thinking. 

Many companies have experienced decline because they’ve refused to accept ideas that originated elsewhere until it was too late. 

When William Orton, President of the Western Union Telegraph Company, was offered the patent to the newly invented telephone by Alexander Graham Bell for a mere $100,000, the mogul dismissed the outsider’s invention as nothing more than a “toy”.

Thomas Edison was certain that his direct current was the best method of transmitting electricity to the masses, going so far as to launch a costly (and inhumane) smear campaign against Nikola Tesla’s alternating current–only for AC to be proven the best solution for powering the modern world.

Sony’s Walkman revolutionized how we listen to music with cassette tapes, but the device was succeeded by the iPod partly due to the corporation’s refusal to make their digital music players compatible with MP3s as they hadn’t developed the format themselves.

What caused these successful individuals and companies to make irrational decisions that rejected good ideas and ultimately allowed their competitors to surpass them? Their logic had become impaired by Not Invented Here Syndrome. 

Defining Not Invented Here Syndrome

In 1982, a seminal study examined the behavior of 50 R & D teams and explored the effect of the social phenomenon called Not Invented Here (NIH) Syndrome, which was described by the researchers as “the tendency of a project group of stable composition to believe it possesses a monopoly of knowledge of its field, which leads it to reject new ideas from outsiders to the likely detriment of its performance”. 

In short, Not Invented Here Syndrome is a decision-making error where we tend to value our own ideas above those conceived by people outside of our group.

It’s been over 40 years since that study was conducted, but NIH Syndrome continues to stunt innovation in every industry–including edtech.

“One of the major concerns in the sector has always been the Not Invented Here Syndrome,” said Professor Wendy Purcell of T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University on The Edtech Podcast. “I think we do so much reinventing, duplication, and there’s so much waste in the Not Invented Here Syndrome.” 

Spotting the symptoms

According to an article by David Antons and Frank T. Piller of RWTH Aachen University, two key conditions must exist to identify the presence of the syndrome: 

  1. a boundary of knowledge between two entities, and 
  2. an irrational devaluation of external knowledge.  

NIH can be diagnosed by testing the underlying rationale used to disqualify an idea. Phrases like “we already tried that”, “we can do it better ourselves”, and “our customers won’t accept it” are potential indicators of unsound reasoning because they are all examples of thought-terminating cliché, which is a kind of highly reductive language that supports logical fallacies, dismisses dissent, and brooks no further discussion. 

Of course, there are cases when resistance to external ideas is justified: when they’re wholly unproven, a poor fit for the business, or pose a genuine risk of cannibalizing operations within the company. But once you’ve ruled out these possible threats, the only barrier to adopting the best solution is a toxic attitude towards the unfamiliar. 

A landmark experiment 

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and regular TED Talk speaker, has dedicated much of his career to exploring how irrationality affects our decision-making process. In his book The Upside of Irrationality, Ariely conducted experiments to explore how we attach value to the things we create–the “IKEA Effect” describes our valuation of the physical objects we create, whereas Not Invented Here Syndrome describes our valuation of the ideas we create.   

Ariely and his colleagues conducted an experiment where thousands of participants were asked to look at a number of problems, evaluate suggested solutions to those problems, then come up with their own solutions to the problems. The result was that participants generally rated their own solutions higher than those generated by someone else, believing their own ideas to be more practical and more likely to succeed. Participants were also willing to donate more of their time and money in promoting their own idea than someone else’s.

The researchers determined there are three possible reasons why we favor an idea: 

  1. objective quality (the most logical option), 
  2. idiosyncratic fit (the option that best aligns with our personal beliefs), 
  3. ownership of the idea (the option we came up with).  

To focus on ownership’s influence, participants were shown solutions to another set of problems, then given a list of words and told to use only these words to compose new solutions. However, these predetermined words were simply the experimenters’ suggestions in deconstructed form. Once again, the participants ultimately favored their own solutions–even though they were essentially no different from those created by the researchers.

The experimenters concluded that once we feel like we’ve created an idea, a sense of ownership is established and we begin to overvalue the usefulness and importance of that idea. In other words, we can form irrational and unhealthy attachments to our own ideas.

Once we feel like we’ve created an idea, we begin to overvalue the usefulness and importance of that idea. In other words, we can form irrational and unhealthy attachments to our own ideas. Click To Tweet

In the scientific world, Not Invented Here Syndrome is also known as the “toothbrush theory” because we seem to treat solutions a lot like a toothbrush: everybody wants one, everybody needs one, but nobody wants to use someone else’s.

The risks of untreated Not Invented Here Syndrome

Antons and Piller simply summed up the danger of the syndrome in Opening the Black Box of Not Invented Here: “When NIH hinders the reception of knowledge, negative consequences are likely to occur.”

A major adverse effect of the social phenomenon is a problem that’s endemic in the modern world: wastefulness. 

“Not Invented Here Syndrome is also known as the ‘toothbrush theory’ because we treat solutions like a toothbrush: everybody wants one, everybody needs one, but nobody wants to use someone else’s.”

NIH sufferers squander precious resources like money, time, and effort when they decide to pursue “undifferentiated heavy lifting”–this is how Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, describes the generic problems which, although labor-intensive, add no extra value to a company. 

When it comes to educational platforms, Herculean levels of undifferentiated heavy lifting can be required.

“Every learning and assessment product that has ever been has needed a multiple choice question engine and there’s no prize for getting multiple choice any better than anyone else–it’s just a generic thing you need to have before you get going,” said Learnosity CEO Gavin Cooney on how the company solves problems with educational APIs. “But it’s also heavy lifting… it actually becomes quite a difficult task quite quickly, even though it just looks like four radio buttons on a page. And that’s where we started: we decided to stop the industry from reinventing that wheel again and again.”

How to cure your syndrome 

When you’re in a situation where your project group must choose between an internal or an external idea, assess how each decision-maker is ascribing value: objective quality, idiosyncratic fit, or ownership? 

If ownership is the driving force, decision-makers have fallen victim to Not Invented Here Syndrome. Combat the bias by probing and exposing the validity of the reasoning–are the decision-makers’ arguments logical or are they merely thought-terminating clichés?

Ask every decision-maker to put aside intuition and instead perform a rigorous cost-benefit analysis for every solution based on objective measures, such as price, scalability, reliability, security, time and difficulty. 

“If there’s an accepted solution on the market, and it isn’t your core differentiating technology, and there’s no obvious reason not to take it, then take it,” said Pete Shearer, professional software developer and host of Pete On Software, speaking about overcoming NIH Syndrome in product development. 

A healthy decision-making process

Not Invented Here Syndrome affects edtech as much as it does every other industry because it’s simply human nature. Only by being aware of this decision-making error can you be confident that you’re making the right choices for your product.

How much further could your platform go without the impediment of this bias? Once your project group is free from Not Invented Here Syndrome, you’ll be ready to embrace open innovation and accelerate progress.

Are you an edtech product manager weighing up a build versus buy decision?🤔 Read our guide below to help you accurately estimate the cost of your project—and make the logical choice 👇👇👇

Seán Kenehan

Content Marketing Manager

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