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

Newtonian Blind Alleys: I

by

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 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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

A waterfall and spray cliff in the mountains of VirginiaThe Shower Effect: Sudden Insights
Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?
Problem solving often requires collaborationTen Tactics for Tough Times: I
When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part I of a set of approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
A hearing in the U.S. Senate, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions about appropriations.What Makes a Good Question?
In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
Six kids on a PlayPumpThe Questions Not Asked
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
Eugene F. Kranz, flight director, at his console on May 30, 1965, in the Control Room in the Mission Control Center at HoustonDesign Errors and Group Biases
Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A demanding managerComing April 14: What Micromanaging Is and Isn't
Micromanaging is a particularly dysfunctional pattern of management behavior, involving interference in the work others are supposedly doing. Confusion about what it is and what it isn't makes effective response difficult. Available here and by RSS on April 14.
A possibly difficult choiceAnd on April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.