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

Newtonian Blind Alleys: II

by

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

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? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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 flapjack breakfastBois Sec!
When your current approach isn't working, you can scrap whatever you're doing and start again — if you have enough time and money. There's a less radical solution, and if it works, it's usually both cheaper and faster.
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976, compared to the MGS image taken in 2001Wishful Thinking and Perception: I
How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
Srinivasa RamanujanLinear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're other than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution.
ClarityBrain Clutter
The capacity of the human mind is astonishing. Our ability to accomplish great things while simultaneously fretting about mountains of trivia is perhaps among the best evidence of that capacity. Just imagine what we could accomplish if we could control the fretting…

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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.