Why You Can’t Beat Homemade
My cooking skills are quite modest, and my wife knows it. However, every now and then I concoct a dish that could pass for edible. A few weeks ago, I bought some sole. Determined to escape the monotony of familiar sauces, I devised a new one—a daring combination of white wine, pureed pistachio nuts, honey, grated orange peel, and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Upon tasting it, my wife slid her baked sole to the edge of the plate and began to scrape off the sauce, smiling ruefully as she did so. I, on the other hand, didn’t think it was bad at all. I explained to her in detail what a bold creation she was missing, but her expression stayed the same.
Two weeks later, we were having sole again. This time my wife did the cooking. She prepared two sauces: The first was her tried-and-true beurre blanc, and the other, a new recipe from a French top chef. The second tasted horrible. Afterward, she confessed that it was not a French recipe at all, but a Swiss one: my masterpiece from two weeks before! She had caught me out. I was guilty of the not-invented-here syndrome (NIH syndrome), which fools us into thinking anything we create ourselves is unbeatable.
NIH syndrome causes you to fall in love with your own ideas. This is valid not only for fish sauces, but for all kinds of solutions, business ideas, and inventions. Companies tend to rate homegrown ideas as far more important than those from outsiders, even if, objectively, this is not the case. I recently had lunch with the CEO of a company that specializes in software for health insurance firms. He told me how difficult it is to sell his software to potential customers, even though his firm is the market leader in terms of service, security, and functionality. Most insurers are convinced that the best solution is what they have crafted themselves in-house over the past thirty years. Another CEO told me how hard it is to get his staff in the company’s headquarters to accept solutions proposed from far-flung subsidiaries.
When people collaborate to solve problems and then evaluate these ideas themselves, NIH syndrome will inevitably exert an influence. Thus, it makes sense to split teams into two groups. The first group generates ideas, the second rates them, and vice versa. We tend to rate our own business ideas as more successful than other people’s concepts. This self-confidence forms the basis of thriving entrepreneurship but also explains start-ups’ frequently miserable returns.
This is how psychologist Dan Ariely measured the NIH syndrome. Writing in his blog at the New York Times, Ariely asked readers to provide solutions to six issues, such as “How can cities reduce water consumption without limiting it by law?” The readers had to make suggestions and to assess the feasibility of all the ideas proposed. They also had to specify how much of their time and money they would invest in each idea. Finally, they were limited to using a set list of fifty words, ensuring that everyone gave more or less the same answers. Despite this, the majority rated their own responses as more important and applicable than the others, even though the submissions were virtually identical.
On a societal level, NIH syndrome has serious consequences. We overlook shrewd ideas simply because they come from other cultures. In Switzerland, where each state or “canton” has certain powers, one tiny canton never approved women’s suffrage; it took a federal court ruling in 1990 to change the law—a startling case of NIH. Or consider the modern traffic roundabout, with its clear yield requirements, that was designed by British transport engineers in the 1960s and implemented throughout the UK. It took another thirty years full of oblivion and resistance until this obvious traffic decongestant found its way in the United States and continental Europe. Today France alone has more than thirty thousand roundabouts, which the French now probably falsely attribute to the designer of the Place de l’Étoile.
In conclusion: We are drunk on our own ideas. To sober up, take a step back every now and then and examine their quality in hindsight. Which of your ideas from the past ten years were truly outstanding? Exactly.