Of Conjugations and Teapots

Two simple concepts from one philosopher may help us towards more clarity.


In a business meeting that we attended last week, someone argued against a proposed approach in a very persuasive manner. The gist of their argument was that their company would eventually outperform their competitors by using their existing approach (without the need for modification or reconsideration).

This argument was made even though there seemed, on the face of it, to have been no real difference between what this organisation implemented (and how they implemented it) when compared to what their competitors implemented.

Had it not been for this bigthink.com 'reminder' article (on what is referred to as the Russell Conjugation or Emotive Conjugation) that was published only a few days earlier, the technique that the person so very effectively used, may have gone unnoticed. From the article: "... Russell joked that “emotional conjugation” could change the impression of a sentence much like verb conjugation changes the mood" and Russell provided the following example: "I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool."

With Russell's Conjugation in the back of one's mind, the person's assertions (in our session) could therefore be better investigated by probing for proper (as opposed to mere emotive) evidence of their company's supposed superiority. Now, to be fair to this person and their insights: Yes, there was very good evidence. And, no, we cannot, of course, dig deeper there now.


Regarding probing for evidence and proof: Knowledge of one of Russell's other ideas may then also come in handy: Burden-of-proof and Russell's Teapot.

Wikipedia's description of Russell's Teapot contains the following:

"burden of proof lies upon a person making empirically unfalsifiable claims, as opposed to shifting the burden of disproof to others".

In terms of the Teapot:

"(Russell) wrote that if he were to assert, without offering proof, that a teapot, too small to be seen by telescopes, orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, he could not expect anyone to believe him solely because his assertion could not be proven wrong."

The Teapot and the Sword

Be careful though. Russell's Teapot may be a double-edged sword when Ventures (in startups, or in existing companies) are being considered.

In our book, we cover prof. Clayton M. Christensen's Principle #3 (from his book "The Innovators Dilemma"): "Markets that don’t exist can’t be analysed".

So, given prof. Christensen's Principle #3, together with Russell's Teapot, the implication is that the innovator will be making empirically unfalsifiable claims (as per Christensen) and that the burden of proof therefore rests with the innovator (as per Russell). I.e. innovators must persuade others that their venture-idea is good even though it is 'impossible' for innovators to have enough proof.

Yet still there are many ventures - and there are also many examples of (wildly successful) outperformance through such ventures. How so Joe Schmo?

Well, firstly, this is the beauty of innovation and venturing - it favours the brave. Even without knowledge of Russell or Christensen many competitors intuitively see the risks and steer clear. Thus, those who push ahead have huge advantages when they then succeed. They are then able to outperform and to outperform spectacularly.

How so Joe Schmo?

Let's now answer the "How so Joe Schmo?" question. How do we deal with this question of burden-of-proof when we want to do something new?

  1. Gather the evidence that does exist. Is there really zero evidence? Nope. So, you must gain evidence of the milieu in which you are operating. What is already known? What can be inferred from that?
  2. Then: How can you influence the future? You must shape that which you don't yet know. You must create the future. You must create that proof and that evidence. You must create structures for that success (structures that your competitors do not have, or that they seemingly do not understand).
  3. If you decide to commit, you must fully commit. You must use the concept of a Venture (as opposed to the concepts of Projects, as Scope, Timelines and Business Cases are not possible where you cannot fully satisfy the burden-of-proof).
  4. You must implement modern processes. You must improve modern processes. You must build the venture iteratively and in a tinkering manner. You must find that evidence that you do not yet have through investigation and through tinkering and then through continuous pivoting in the direction of the evidence.

And you must do all of this as part of a very clear strategy that was arrived at in a proper useful strategy-creation manner.

On the subjects of tea and tinkering: from Kakuzo Okakura's "The Book of Tea": “Teaism ... is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

Teapot Conjugation Pearls

So, without even having to refer to wisdom from many other philosophers, simply keeping Russel's Conjugation and Russel's Teapot in mind might already provide you with enough ammunition to succeed.

But, if you do need a few more pearls from Russel, here are some:


Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Having made the decision, do not revise it unless some new fact comes to your knowledge. Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.”

Iteration and Tinkering

Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.

I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt.”