Archive for category Innovation management
I recently ran across an outstanding blog and series of articles by Bruce A. Vojak, Associate Dean for Administration and an Adjunct Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. Vojak deals with the epistemology of innovation. Epistemology is mostly an academic term, not yet usurped by Silicon Valley spin doctors, which basically means the study of knowledge and its justification – in other words, what we know, how we know it, and how we know we know it. So it follows that Vojak’s intent is to challenge readers to reflect on the practice of innovation and on how practitioners come to know what to do today in order to innovate successfully.
Incidentally, Vojak uses the popular term, “breakthrough innovation” – as we all do. I’ve been somewhat skeptical that this term can really carry much epistemic weight. It is popular among innovation advocates, but I’m not sure it has any theoretical – thus predictive – value. Even Judy Estrin, a Silicon Valley visionary for whom I have great respect, differentiates breakthrough from other innovation only in terms of historical marketplace success. Thus it seems to me that breakthrough can only be applied to an innovation in retrospect. In this sense it may be rare that prospective innovators can know whether they are pursuing continuous innovation or the breakthrough variety. Why set your sights low? In any case, Vojak is much more knowledgeable on the topic than I, and I’ll enjoy seeing where he goes with the breakthrough distinction that he develops somewhat in his So, what’s the big idea?. Vojak offers that breakthrough innovators are systems thinkers.
The articles by Vojak that I’m most thrilled with, contrasting the minds of contemporary innovators, are entitled “Patriarchs of Contemporary Innovation.” He’s released two of these this month: Newton & Goethe and Socrates & Hegel. I love these for many reasons including good subjects, concisely covered, flowing logically in a non-academic tone; but especially because they assign a very broad scope to innovation, contrasting the tunnel vision of the tech press.
In Newton & Goethe, Vojak looks at what can be learned from contrasting the two contemporary (with each other) thinkers. The objective Newton used a mathematical description of color, saw color as external to humans, reduced color into components (his famous prism experiment), and was a detached and dispassionate observer of it – the classic empiricist. For the subjective Goethe, color is something that humans do (it’s in our perception). Goethe was attached to color’s beauty; color is an experiential matter. In this sense, Newton is an analyst and Goethe is a design-thinker. Vojak then proposes that one role of an innovator is be able to hold both perspectives and to know when each is appropriate. Contrast this mature perspective with the magic-creative-powers BS peddled by Silicon Valley’s hockers of Design Thinking.
Because of my interest in history of science/philosophy of science, one aspect of Newton & Goethe got me thinking along a bit of tangent, but I think a rather interesting one. Vojak contrasts the romanticism and metaphysics of Goethe with the naturalism and empiricism of Newton, the “mastery of them that know.” But even Newton’s empiricism went only so far. Despite his having revealed what he called “true causes” and “universal truths,” his responses to his peers on what gravity actually was suggest that he never sought justification (in the epistemological sense) for his theories. “Gravity is the finger of God,” said Newton.
Newton was not a scientist, and we should avoid calling him that for reasons beyond the fact that the term did not exist in his day. He was a natural philosopher. When his rival continental natural philosophers – the disciples of Descartes – demanded explanation for force at a distance (how gravity pulls with no rope), Newton replied something along the lines of that gravity means what the equation says. For Newton there was no need to correlate experience with something behind the experience. This attitude seems natural today, with our post-Einstein, post-quantum-mechanics perspective, but certainly was rightly seen by the emerging naturalists of Newton’s day as a theological-holdout basis for denying any interest in understanding reality.
In my view, history shortchanges us a bit by not bothering to mention that only 20% of Newton’s writings were in math and physics, the rest being theology and various forms of spooky knowledge. As presented in modern textbooks, Newton doesn’t seem like the type who would spend years seeking divine secrets revealed in the proportions of biblical structures, yet he did. Newton helped himself to Design Thinking at times.
None of this opposes any of Vojak’s contrast of Newton and Goethe; I just find it fascinating that even in Newton’s day, there was quite a bit of thinking on the opposite side of Newton from Goethe.
Are you a real engineer – you know, the kind who actually knows the underlying mechanics of how the natural world works? Have you ever been evicted from an innovation workshop by some smug hipster with an art degree who your firm engaged to teach you how to think creatively? Has a self-proclaimed design guru called you a Debbie Downer because you categorically reject all spacecraft designs that include the note, “Insert warp drive here”?
Do you wear the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics on your sleeve? Do you recoil at greentech entrepreneurs who convince investors and politicians that with innovative design, photovoltaic conversion efficiency can breach the Shockley-Queisser limit or even the Carnot limit?
Do many TED talks make you want to hurl? You know the ones. Take the second most popular TED talk of all time, where Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor relates her “stroke of insight” – an incredible tale of the transcendent peace she experienced after a complete lateral stroke. She drags out the ever-popular (false – but don’t be a Negative Nancy) left-brain/right-brain stuff as an explanation for her mystical experiences. The high-rolling TED audience swoons. Taylor then dredges up an old TED staple, stating, “the left hemisphere is linear thinking.”
Ah – linear thinking. One TED speaker shows a graph of a straight line and another of an exponential curve. He explains the magic nature of exponentiality to the spellbound audience who has apparently forgotten their high school math class on compound interest and then releases his pearl: imagine how productive we can be if we employ nonlinear thinking instead of the linear variety. He equivocates discontinuous non-linearity with exponential nonlinearity and not a soul notices. Critical thinking is for left-brained losers.
Do you groan when Jane McGonigal declares an epic win with her assertion that behaviors learned in World of Warcraft can translate into solutions to real problems if we just swallow the right dose of newthink? McGonigal reports that humans have spent 5.93 million years playing World of Warcraft. She means, of course, 5.93 million man-years (or Doritos-stained-fingers, pear-shaped-kid-years). She adds that 5.93 million years ago is when primates became bipedal (TED video at 6:05). She then addresses the evolutionary value of video games, noting that we’ve played WoW as long as we’ve walked on our hind legs. I’m not making this up. “This is true; I believe this,” as McGonigal likes to say.
If you’ve ever wanted to choke a perpetual-motion hocking idea-man, The Onion has an antidote:
“Fail early and often.” This war cry du jour of speakers on entrepreneurial innovation addresses several aspects of what big companies need to learn from little ones about market dynamics at the speed of the internet. The shelf life of a product idea is pretty short these days. If you don’t cannibalize your own line, a nimble competitor will eat your lunch. Failure is a necessary step on the path to innovative solutions. Short-cycle failure is much cheaper than the long-cycle variety. Innovation entails new ideas, and the idea generation phase is not the time for Negative Nelly, the devil’s advocate, to demoralize your design team. A lot of bad ideas beget new insights that spawn good ideas.
My favorite story about letting crazy ideas fly deals with Pacific Power and Light, who supplies electricity to some remote spots in the Cascades. As the story goes, storms left thick ice on their power transmission lines. Linemen were sent out into the field, who climbed the icy towers and used long hooks to knock down the ice. The process was slow, expensive and dangerous.
PP&L’s brainstorming sessions initially yielded no clever solutions. They again attacked the issue, this time ensuring cognitive diversity by including linemen, accountants, secretaries, and the mail guy.
As a joke, a lineman suggested training bears to climb the poles and shake them. Someone else added that by putting honey pots on top of the poles, the bears would go for the honey without training, and perhaps shake the poles sufficiently to knock the ice off the lines. Continuing the silliness, someone suggested using helicopters to periodically fill the honey pots.
Bingo. A secretary, formerly a nurse’s aide in Vietnam, recalled the fury of the down-wash from the helicopter blades and asked if flying a helicopter near the power lines would be sufficient to shake the lines and knock the ice off. In fact, it is! By valuing cognitive diversity and by encouraging crazy thinking, the team found a solution. As the story goes, PP&L now uses helicopters to fly over the power transmission lines after ice storms and it works fabulously.
As is probably apparent to any student of mythology, literary form criticism or biblical criticism, the story is pure fiction. It appears in many tellings on the web, some dating back several decades. Veracity strike one: manuscript (version) differences indicate multiple independent secondary sources. Strike two: earlier versions have less textural detail than later versions (e.g., the lineman is named Bill in later tellings). Strike three: the setups for the convergence of a diverse group are strained and get more detailed over time (compare the aphorism setups in Gospel Mark vs. Matthew).
Sure, the story is fiction – but what of it? The tale itself is aphoristic – an adage. It does not rely on the credibility of its source or the accuracy of the details to be valid; it’s validity is self evident. Or as Jack Nicholson (R.P. McMurphy) is often quoted as saying in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “Just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
But as any movie fan with access to web-based movie scripts can attest, that quote never happened either. But just because McMurphy never said that just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it isn’t true doesn’t mean that that isn’t true. (That last sentence contains a level-two embedded phrase, by the way.)
Further, just because Nicholson didn’t say it doesn’t mean it wasn’t said. It turns out a few others are cited as sources for this saying as well. The earliest one I could find. oddly enough, is Marcus Borg, theologian and New Testament scholar who found himself in the odd position of trying to defend Christianity while denying that Jesus said the things attributed to him. Borg’s tools are the same ones I used on the helicopter scriptures above.
Quote attribution is a tricky matter, especially when a more famous guy repeats a line from a less famous guy. Everyone knows the one about Oscar Wilde saying to James Whistler, “I wish I had said that.” To which, Whistler replied, “You will Oscar, you will.” I love this one, because it’s a quote about a quote. And none the worse when we discover, as you might expect, that it never happened – which, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The exchange between Whistler and Wilde is cited in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. They give the source as page 67 of Leonard Cresswell Ingleby’s 1907 book, Oscar Wilde. As you might expect from my mentioning it here, Inglesby’s book contains no such quote on page 67 or anywhere else in the book. However, the 1973 Monty Python skit, Oscar Wilde, does include this exchange between Whistler and Wilde. Inclusion by the Monty Python crew, who tend to research history better than most textbook authors, is reason enough to dig a bit further for a source. Oscar Wilde researcher Peter Raby would be the guy to check on this trivia. I did. Raby traces the quote back to rumors in the early 1900s. He finds that some time after Wilde’s death Herbert Vivien, Douglas Sladen and Frank Harris all recalled the quote but disagreed on whether Wilde or Whistler or neither were involved.
I will never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good. – Seneca
Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: It’s good to be silly at the right moment. – Horace
In a world of crowdsourcing and open innovation, it barely matters – beyond frivolous patents of course – where an idea originates or if its pedigree is respectable. Fables about bears, helicopters and Jack Nicholson are fair game. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
William Storage 4 Sep 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology & Society
Decades ago I read Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but forgot the details except for the general notion of paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifts are unforgettable. They’re popping up everywhere these days. Recently I’ve revisited Kuhn in detail with an eye toward understanding the application of science and criticism of science to technology and innovation (related posts: Postmodern Management Strategy, A New Misunderstanding of Science, Postmodernism, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend).
Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts was innovative and disruptive, and he’s often cited in reference to disruptive innovation. His influence is amazingly broad. It’s hard to get through a TED conference or an innovation seminar without hearing his name. As I mentioned in my first post on Kuhn, he strongly rejected most use of his work. No matter – the accidental rebel Kuhn lives on, 50 years after Structure was published. Kuhn is the most famous of several historians/philosophers of science whose work escaped the realm of academia in the ’60s. This explosion of popularity may never have happened without the others in that field who set the stage for Structure. Primarily, these were Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Paul Feyerabend.
In revisiting their work, I’ve collected some amazing quotes that show why these guys’ influence (mainly through Kuhn) went viral. The essential background here is that these scholars were, for the most part, methodologically and politically conservative and their writing was intended for a narrow audience of readers in their own fields. This important fact escaped (and continues to escape) most of the actual audience receiving their messages.
Kuhn was highly conservative, objectivist, authoritarian and generally positivist (by most understandings of positivism) when he wrote Structure and remained so throughout his career. The standard public view of Kuhn, however, was that he was subjectivist, relativist and liberal. These characteristics actually fit Kuhn’s opponent Karl Popper somewhat better, though Popper was closer in reality to the public conception of Kuhn. Paul Feyerabend was all over the board regarding Popper vs. Kuhn and most other subjects. Feyerabend, unlike both Popper and Kuhn, once embraced the cultural constructivist view of science but ultimately landed in objectivism. Imre Lakatos attempted a hybrid model of science somewhere between that of Popper and Kuhn. Kuhn’s runaway fame vanquished Popper and rendered Lakatos irrelevant.
The above summary grossly oversimplifies. None of these men where ideologues; their positions were far too highly developed for terms like relativist to be of much use beyond the coarsest of characterization. The below quotes show just how susceptible their writings can be to social reinterpretation, creative misunderstanding, and application to a spectrum of unrelated causes, especially when removed from their context.
Before the quotes from Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend, I’ll give links to some recent writings that use Kuhn – not merely his terminology, which is ubiquitous – but direct references that actually cite The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I’m listing some examples without judgment as to creative adaptation, creative misunderstanding, or clueless misappropriation.
Recent usage of Kuhn’s view of Paradigm Shift
- Towards a Philosophical Understanding of Agile Software Methodologies: The Case of Kuhn Versus Popper
- The Open Source Paradigm Shift (Tim O’Reilly)
- Innovation Paradigm Shift
- A Paradigm Shift in Design and Innovation
- Thomas Kuhn & Meaningful Innovation
- Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift, Christensen Disruptive Innovation and Solar Energy
- Climate Change, Sociological Theory and Paradigm Shift
- Organizational Change as Paradigm Shift
- The Paradigm Shift in Healthcare
- A Philosophical Analysis of The Evidence-Based Medicine Debate
- Paradigm Shift: The End of Normal Science in Medicine
- Leadership and Organizations for the New Millennium
- A Paradigm Shift in HR
- Outcome Based Religion: Purpose-Driven Apostasy
- Sailing the Shoals of Adaptive Management: The Case of Salmon in the Pacific Northwest
- From Marketing Mix to Relationship Marketing: Towards a Paradigm Shift in Marketing
- Paradigm Shift and Instructional Technology
- The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing
- Principles of Hypnotherapy
- Connectionism: Is It a Paradigm Shift for Psychology
- T. Kuhn Meets T. Rex: Critical Conversations and New Directions in Science Centres and Science Museums
- The Changing Context of Sexuality Education: Paradigms and Challenges for Alternative Futures
- Race and Immigration Law: A Paradigm Shift
- Global Television and the Shaping of World Politics
Provocative quotes from Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend:
Thomas Kuhn’s apparent attack on logic and empiricism:
As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice—there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community… this issue of paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
Thomas Kuhn on the paradigm shift:
The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications. During the transition period there will be a large but never complete overlap between the problems that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference in the modes of solution. When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Kuhn on interpretation of evidence:
Examining the record of past research from the vantage of contemporary historiography, the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Kuhn on bias in research:
Science does not deal in all possible laboratory manipulations. Instead it selects those relevant to the juxtaposition of a paradigm with the immediate experience that the paradigm has partially determined. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Kuhn on science’s distance from truth:
We may… have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth. – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Al Gore invoking Kuhn on paradigm shifts:
Well-established theories collapse under the weight of new facts and observations which cannot be explained, and then accumulate to the point where the once useful theory is clearly obsolete. – Commencement address at M.I.T. (7 Jun 1996)
Karl Popper on the role of the investigator:
… every step is guided by theory. We do not stumble upon our experiences, nor do we let them flow over us like a stream. Rather, we have to be active: we have to ‘make’ our experiences. It is we who always formulate the questions to be put to nature; it is we who try again and again to put these questions so as to elicit a clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (for nature does not give an answer unless pressed for it). And in the end, it is again we who give the answer; it is we ourselves who, after severe scrutiny, decide upon the answer. – The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959
Popper on impossibility of justification and verification:
The best we can say of a hypothesis is that up to now it has been able to show its worth, and that it has been more successful than other hypotheses although, in principle, it can never be justified… – The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Popper on the shaky foundations of science:
The empirical basis of objective science has … nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being. – The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Paul Feyerabend’s often-quoted apparent defense of anarchy:
It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’, it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes. – Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), 27-8.
Feyerabend’s rarely quoted qualification of the above:
Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. – Against Method
Feyerabend, sounding very conservative on the cultural-construction model of science:
How can an enterprise depend on culture in so many ways, and yet produce such solid results? Most answers to this question are either incomplete or incoherent. Physicists take the fact for granted. Movements that view quantum mechanics as a turning-point in thought – and that include fly-by-night mystics, prophets of a New Age, and relativists of all sorts – get aroused by the cultural component and forget predictions and technology. – “Atoms and Consciousness,” Common Knowledge Vol. 1, No. 1, 1992
Sociologist Steve Fuller on Kuhn vs. Popper:
… both can reasonably lay claim to having been seriously misinterpreted by friends and foes alike. The situation has not been helped by the standard presentation of the ‘Kuhn–Popper debate’ in textbooks on philosophy and the scientific method. In terms of scholastic affiliations, Popper is portrayed as objectivist, realist and positivist, while Kuhn appears as subjectivist, relativist and historicist. … Thus, philosophers – even the great ones – spend most of their time attacking straw opponents who fail to correspond to any actual precursor. – Kuhn vs. Popper, 2003
Imre Lakatos defending philosophy of science against scientists:
How can a mere philosopher devise criteria distinguishing between good and bad science, knowing it is an inutterable mystic secret of the Royal Society? – ‘Lecture One on the Scientific Method’ (1973)
Lakatos against Popper:
No experimental result can ever kill a theory: any theory can be saved from counterinstances either by some auxiliary hypothesis or by a suitable reinterpretation of its terms. – ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes’, in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London 1965 (1970), Vol. 4, 116.
Lakatos on science creating its own universe:
Scientists dream up phantasies and then pursue a highly selective hunt for new facts which fit these phantasies. This process may be described as ‘science creating its own universe’ (as long as one remembers that ‘creating’ here is used in a provocative-idiosyncratic sense). A brilliant school of scholars (backed by a rich society to finance a few well-planned tests) might succeed in pushing any fantastic programme ahead, or alternatively, if so inclined, in overthrowing any arbitrarily chosen pillar of ‘established knowledge’. – ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes
Feyerabend on popular use of Kuhn:
Kuhn’s masterpiece played a decisive role. It led to new ideas, Unfortunately it also led to lots of trash – Against Method
Yesterday I commented on how corporate managers tend to move on to new, more fashionable approaches, independent of the value of current ones. I played around with using models from religious studies for understanding rivalry in Systems Thinking. Several good books interpret the rapid rise and decline of management initiatives and business improvement methods from the perspective of management-as-fashion. As with yesterday’s topic I think the metaphor of business mindset as religion also helps understand the phenomenon. In the spirit of multidisciplinary study, I’ll kick this around a bit.
The fad nature of strategic management initiatives and business process improvement methodologies has been studied in depth over the past two decades. Managers rapidly acquire strong interest in a new approach to improvements in productivity or competitiveness and embrace the methodology with enthusiasm and commitment. The recent explosion of tech/business hype on the web, consumed by small business as well as large, seems to increase frequency and amplitude of business fashions. Often before metrics can be established to assess effectiveness, enthusiasm declines and the team becomes restless. Eyes wander and someone hears of new, even-stronger magic. Another cycle begins – and is exploited by high-priced consultants ready to help you deploy the next big thing. Cameron and Quinn, in Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture give a truly dismal report card to nearly all organizational change initiatives.
Each successive cycle increases the potential for cynicism and resentment, particularly for those not at the top. Barry Staw and Lisa Epstein of UC Berkeley showed a decade ago that bandwagon application of the TQMS (Total Quality Management System) initiative in the 1990s did not correlate with increased profits, but correlated very well with decline of employee morale and increases in CEO compensation. Quite a few top managers were highly rewarded for spearheading TQM but retired with honors before TQM’s effect (or lack of it) was known.
Google Ngram for TQM, ISO 9001 and Six Sigma over a 20-year period
The skepticism given TQM by many professionals was shown by a poster seen in many cubicles in those days. It contained a statement attributed to Petronius (incorrectly attributed to Petronius, probably derived from Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization!):
We trained hard but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization
Having been a consultant in those days, I was painfully aware of what the TQMS and ISO 9001 fads had done for how consultants were viewed by hard-working employees. The last data I’ve seen on use of consultants in strategic initiatives (Peter Wood, 2002) showed that most firms used outsiders to justify and implement such programs. In the management-fashion metaphor, consultants are both the key fashion suppliers and its advertisers, skilled at detecting and exploiting burgeoning sales opportunities.
In a little over twenty years of working with large corporations, I got to witness many process, quality, and management initiatives:
- Quality Circles
- STEP – Solutions Through Employee Participation
- IDEF0 – Integration Definition for Function Modeling
- McBer Competency Framework
- Keys to Self Renewal
- Continuous Improvement/Kaizen
- Natural Work Groups
- Statistical Process Control
- BWA – Business Workflow Analysis
- McKinsey consultation
- CPIP – Continuous Performance Improvement Program
- QFD – Quality function deployment
- Leadership Councils
- Matrix Management
- Integrated Product Development
- BPR – Business process reengineering
- SDWT – Self-Directed Work Teams
- Boothroyd Dewhurst DFMA – Design for Manufacture and Assembly
- Process-Based Management
- TQMS – Total Quality Management System
Three of these stand out – Statistical Process Control and DFMA, because, in their most technical interpretation at least, they produced measurable results; and TQMS, because it was embraced with unparalleled gusto but flopped miserably. Despite the negative views of these initiatives in the ranks, I have little reason to find fault with them; they may have all been successful in due time with due commitment. In general, it was the initiatives’ frequency that demoralized, much more than the content. Today’s business fads are less intrusive and less about the organization. But that could change.
In the TQMS years I was at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, then rival of Boeing in Seattle. Douglas employees, both wary and weary of TQMS, read the acronym as “Time to Quit and Move to Seattle.”
As a religious parallel, I’m interested in the way ancient religions grew tired of their gods and invented new, oddly equivalent ones to replace them. At some point the Egyptians seemed to feel that Amun-Ra’s power had faded, though he had replaced the withered Nun. Isis and Osiris took Amun-Ra’s place. In the Greek world Asclepius and Hercules/Melkart replaced the Olympian gods. In Rome Mithras replaced Helios, both solar deities. Divine succession may have something to do with the eventual realization that the gods failed to do man’s bidding. The ancients were perhaps a bit more patient than modern business is.
In the 1990s, corporate messianic expectation surged. Religious parallels abound in the TQM literature, e.g., Robert J Bird’s observations on Transitory Collective Beliefs and the Dynamics of TQM Consulting, in which he quotes a Business Forum article stating that TQM “will change our lives as much as the advent of mass production”. The long, slow route of continuous improvement wasn’t yielding fast enough. Leaders looked to consulting firms in the sky to deliver immediate bottom line salvation. When it didn’t materialize, a new generation of humbler, more earthly gods emerged. Agile, Scrum, Targeted Innovation, and the seven habits of highly effective business secularists.
Closely related to messianic expectation is the concept of sacred scapegoats (see René Girard and Raymund Schwager). In ancient times, when a tribe grew impatient with their king or priest, they threw him into a sacrificial pit, imagining that his sins, their sins, and the current bad times would go along for the ride. A new king was chosen and hopes for renewal were celebrated. Our New Year’s Eve parties retain a hint of this motif. Kings got wise to this risk and introduced the practice of delegating a mock king for a day, selecting some hapless victim/king from the prison. The mock king was both venerated and condemned, then went down the well with the collective sins of the tribe. The real king survived to usher in the new year.
Applying this model to continuous improvement dynamics, it may be that there’s more than mere fashion to the speed with which we replace business methodologies. Their adoption and dismissal might simply be part of a stable process of coming to terms with unrealized goals, unreasonable as they might have been in the first place, and throwing them down the pit.
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. – Mark Twain