Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 22;   May 29, 2019: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II

Newtonian Blind Alleys: II

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Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum.
A rainbow

Some decisions turn out well — or well enough — and some don't. Of the decisions that turn out badly, we don't always have time to examine closely what caused our errors. That's one reason why avoiding errors is better than trying to understand them after we make them. In that spirit, last time I offered a class of errors I called "Newtonian Blind Alleys." These are errors that are traceable, in part, to assumptions we make about how the world works.

The assumption I discussed last time is what I called universality. Universality is the idea that if a system behaves in a certain way in one context, then other similar systems will behave that way in every context. That assumption underlies Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation. And to a very good approximation, Newton was right.

But when we apply universality to managing organizations, we're taking a big risk. We make the assumption of universality when we adopt a particular management approach in our own organization because we've read or heard that it worked well in several other organizations. True, the adopted approach might work; but the evidence for that hope is rather flimsy.

Another one of those assumptions is that groups of related phenomena can be represented on a one-dimensional spectrum. The assumption worked well for Newton as he considered the nature of light.

Before Newton's work, the decomposition by prism or rainbow of white light into colors was believed due to corruption of the purity of white light, causing it to acquire different colors. Newton exposed a weakness in this theory by using a second prism to recombine the decomposed light back into white light, thereby proving that the prisms had not corrupted it. He proposed that the "corpuscles" of light were each endowed with a particular color, and that they could be sorted out by means of a prism into what he called the "colour spectrum."

The concept of The concept of spectrum
requires a one-to-one mapping
between positions along an axis
and some specific property of
the elements of the system
spectrum requires the existence of a one-to-one mapping between positions along an axis, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, some specific property of the elements of the system in question. As we now know, this idea works well for the study of light, because color corresponds to the energy of the photon when the photon is regarded as a wave.

The danger of the spectrum concept arises when we apply it to phenomena that have no associated single continuously varying numerical parameter.

For example, we speak of the "autism spectrum" when considering the range of disorders generally categorized as autism, even though there is no proof of the existence of a single continuously varying numerical parameter that maps to the different autistic behaviors. This leads us to regard distinct disorders as being related by a parameter, the value of which determines which of the different kinds of autism disorders might be present. It is possible that the various autism disorders are related by a single continuously varying parameter such as, for example, the prevalence of a particular neurochemical in the brain. But neither that possibility, nor any other similar possibility, has been established as fact. When, or if, we do isolate a biochemical cause of autism, we might also discover that thinking about autism as a spectrum actually delayed the advancement of knowledge. Or we might find that it helped. The point is that we do not yet have a scientific justification for applying the Newtonian spectrum concept to the problem of understanding the causes of autism.

Or consider the field of app development for mobile devices. Googling the phrase "full spectrum mobile app development" produces almost 100 million hits (as of this writing). Given that mobile app development is project-based and thus is an inherently discrete activity, how the spectrum concept applies to mobile app development is unclear, but the phrase does seem to be popular, probably because it has marketing power. To select an app development service provider or methodology not on the basis of its suitability for one's specific purpose, but instead on the basis of its breadth and applicability to a wide variety of situations, is probably questionable. For example, the ability of an app developer to create prize winning apps that interact with social media platforms might or might not be relevant to its ability to create apps that collect and transmit electrocardiographic data to one's health care provider. But we make management decisions like this frequently, because of the psychological power of the Newtonian concept of spectrum.

When next you hear the phrase full spectrum when used as a tool of persuasion, I hope you will consider the possibility that you're being invited to join someone in a trip down a Newtonian Blind Alley. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: I Could Be Wrong About That  Next Issue

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