The Crick Gossip Test and Innovation

One of the great scientific thinkers of the 20th century was Francis Crick.

One of the great scientific thinkers of the 20th century was Francis Crick. He is best known for his Nobel Prize-winning contribution to discovery of the helical structure of the DNA molecule, but he also made key contributions to understanding the mechanisms by which proteins follow the patterns stored in DNA. Later in life, he became interested in neurobiology and the nature of consciousness. He was widely recognized as a highly original thinker who not only participated in many innovative discoveries, but inspired innovation in others.

When Crick died in 2004, I recalled that several of my college professors had spoken highly of him, so I went out and collected a half dozen or so of his books. I found a treasure trove of challenging ideas on innovation.

The Origin of the Gossip Test

I was particularly intrigued by the “Crick Gossip Test” which, despite its name, has nothing to do with spreading rumors. Crick was trained as a physicist who worked for the British Admiralty during WWII, devising detonation systems for underwater mines. After the war, he wasn’t sure what to do next. He felt that at his advanced age (30), he didn’t have room for error—and wouldn’t have a second choice if he failed in his chosen field. He and his friends loved to talk about penicillin and antibiotics even though they knew little about biochemistry. In other words, they loved to gossip about biochemistry. From this, he formulated the “gossip test:” pursue what you gossip about.

By gossip, Crick meant the things people talked about because they enjoy talking about them, not what they already knew, or were paid to know about. Crick’s theory was that if you and whoever else doesn’t gossip about a subject, there won’t be much interest or investments of time and resources.

Innovation and Fear of Failure

Crick faced the same fear of failure that many of us face when we try to innovate. Often, people ask for the “freedom to fail,” but life is seldom that generous. When resources are tight, projects that must succeed are favored. The gossip test was Crick’s response to the fear of making the wrong career choice. He had to find a way to succeed, and the gossip test helped him make a tough choice. The gossip test gave him the confidence to refuse to allow setbacks to stop him from developing a successful career.  The result was the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and one of the most innovative scientific discoveries of the last hundred years.

On a more general level, fear of making a tough choice is often a chilling inhibitor to innovation.  The Crick Gossip Test (CGT) can help dispel the chill. If you want to know what people are willing to support, find out what they gossip about. The CGT is a tool for testing innovation. If you are unsure about an idea, apply the gossip test. Passing the CGT won’t ensure that the innovation will lead to a Nobel Prize, but it may give you the confidence to succeed, as it did for Francis Crick.

When to Apply the Gossip Test

I have seen the utility of the CGT repeatedly in my own career, most recently at CA Technologies. In fact, I unconsciously decided to enter the computer industry through the CGT. Although I took a few computer science classes and had a part time programming job in college, I graduated with degrees in history and social science. That was in the economic doldrums of the 70’s and I languished for several years in jobs I didn’t like.  I eventually noticed I was spending more time tinkering with an early personal computer I had purchased as a hobby.  Following the precepts of the CGT, I decided to get a degree in computer science.

This was among the best decisions I have ever made. I have been involved with two startups that ran out of funding, but the experience was invaluable, and I loved every minute of it.  I doubt that I would have survived those dark days without a deep-seated taste for the work I was doing.

The Gossip Test at CA Technologies

In the early ‘90s, we applied the CGT to building a browser interface to the product that later became the CA Service Desk Manager. At the time, our development group held weekly brown-bag technology briefings on different topics of interest to engineers.  Shortly before Mosaic became available, we held a presentation on the World Wide Web and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which was a big hit. All of a sudden, the Web was all anybody wanted to talk about. We then added an HTTP interface to the product that was practically designed and built in the break room.   It was a tremendous success and replaced the old “thick client” from years earlier. Without the CGT, we wouldn’t have acted as quickly. 

Note: Crick describes the CGT in chapter 2 of What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery. The rest of the book is worth reading, too, but if you’re just interested in the CGT you can find a lot more information on the web.  

Marv Waschke is a senior principal architect at CA Technologies. He has represented CA Technologies…



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