Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 21;   May 22, 2019: Newtonian Blind Alleys: I

Newtonian Blind Alleys: I

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When we decide how to allocate organizational resources, we make assumptions about how the world works. Often outside our awareness, the thinking of Sir Isaac Newton influences our assumptions. And sometimes they lead us into blind alleys. Universality is one example.
Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). This is a copy of a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1689). Image courtesy Wikimedia.

When solving problems we sometimes reach conclusions that don't serve us well. In the less harmful cases, we discover our error before we make significant investments. In other cases, we commit resources and energy that lead only to the ends of blind alleys, compelling us to reconsider, or find alternatives, or to ultimately abandon efforts altogether. And that's if the organization survives. Human creativity ensures that we can create blind-alley "solutions" in endless variety. But one particular pattern is what I call the Newtonian Blind Alley.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a natural philosopher who created many of the early models of natural phenomena: optics, gravitation, and mechanics, to name a few. He was a revolutionary, in the sense that his conclusions were based on a method of reasoning not widely used at the time, but which we now identify as scientific. His work was founded on a limited number of assumptions about how the natural world works.

Those assumptions — often called "laws" — have since permeated Western culture. Nearly everyone knows the more famous examples: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Or "A body in uniform motion tends to stay in motion unless an external force acts on it."

Unfortunately, these assumptions are routinely and often implicitly applied in domains for which there is little evidence of their relevance. And that's where the trouble begins.

For example, consider the assumption that the laws of physics are universal — so that a law that applies at Point A must necessarily apply everywhere. Newton used this assumption when he proposed his theory of gravitation, which states that the attractive force between two point masses acts along the line between them, is proportional to the product of the two masses, and is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton proposed that this law is universal, applying to all masses throughout the universe.

Newton's theory We assume that the laws of physics
are universal — a law that applies here
must necessarily apply everywhere
served astronomers well until definitive experiments confirmed Einstein's theory of gravitation, but the assumption of universality stands: even for Einstein's theory, we continue to assume that what holds in one place in the universe holds everywhere.

The "laws" of physics might well be universal — we have scant evidence to the contrary. But applying an analogous universality assumption to managing organizations is risky. An example of an analogous assumption might be something like, "If Re-engineering worked in six companies, it will work here." Or "If social media helped the X foundation raise the funds it needed, it will help us." Many a management initiative has failed because it was patterned after initiatives that worked well in several other organizations, without thoroughly understanding how the context, culture, and history of those organizations affected the results of the initiative.

The flaw in their reasoning is that the past efforts might have succeeded because of particular features of those organizations that aren't present in every organization, and when those features are absent, the pattern doesn't work as well, or fails utterly. When the pattern does fail, Newtonian thinking has led to another blind alley.

Misplaced belief in universality is just one example of a Newtonian Blind Alley. We'll examine another example next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II  Next Issue

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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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