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 everywhereserved 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.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Project Improvisation Fundamentals
- Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when
it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's
Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
- New Ideas: Experimentation
- In collaborative problem solving, teams sometimes perform experiments to help choose a solution. These
experiments sometimes lead to trouble. What are the troubles and how can we avoid them?
- Wishful Thinking and Perception: II
- Continuing our exploration of causes of wishful thinking and what we can do about it, here's Part II
of a little catalog of ways our preferences and wishes affect our perceptions.
- When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: II
- When complex systems misbehave, repairs can require deep thought, inspiration, and careful reasoning.
Here are guidelines for a systematic approach to repairing complex systems.
- Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine
alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 21: Perfectionism and Avoidance
- Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination. Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky. Available here and by RSS on August 21.
- And on August 28: Playing at Work
- Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.
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- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached
the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the
race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical
drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project
sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore
lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look
at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read
more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio
44017: November 7,
Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute.
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio 44017: November 7, Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
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