If You Can’t Trust Einstein, Who Can You Trust?

The Economist:

“Something seems wrong with the laws of physics. Spacecraft are not behaving in the way that they should

In 1990 mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) fullskip exam in Pasadena, California, which operates America’s unmanned interplanetary space probes, noticed something odd happen to a Jupiter-bound craft, called Galileo. As it was flung around the Earth in what is known as a slingshot manoeuvre circusgold exam(designed to speed it on its way to the outer solar system), Galileo picked up more velocity than expected. Not much. Four millimetres a second, to be precise. But well within the range that can reliably be detected.

Once might be happenstance. But this strange extra acceleration was seen subsequently with two other craft. That, as Goldfinger would have put it, looks like enemy action.*”

You may not be in the physics business, but there are four important lessonsA4040-108 for any businessperson in this story.

  1. There are no immutable laws. A quick Amazon search on “immutable laws” returns 34 matches. There are hundreds more business books that don’t use the term but do imply that they contain the prescription for business success. They pass it exam are nothing more than theories that have worked, sometimes more than once. Rob May has lambasted the “research” in Good to Great on multiple occasions, and while I disagree with him on the value of the book, he has a point. Collins’ team never looked for companies with all the traits but weren’t great And there probably were some; which leads me to the second 310-011 important lesson:
  2. In any new initiative, predict the expected benefit and figure out how you will measure it before implementing changes. As a consultant I always wanted to quantify the benefits of any new system or process. I was am constantly amazed at the quantity of money companies will spend for generic, undefined “improvement” or “competitiveness”. The more complex the project, the more important this process becomes. Which leads to:
  3. Actually measure your results! If one or more of your assumptions or actions is wrong, you can spot the problem sooner, and potentially avert a looming disaster. And finally:
  4. Best practices = “Rest” practices. What is ‘best’ anyway? Best practices are really nothing more than a collection of stuff the “rest” of some group are doing. They may or may not work for you. That’s why you need to heed lesson two. If those physicists had assumed that the ‘best practice’ of using Einstein’s equations were always right, they might eventually have run into real problems. You need to understand the context of what makes something ‘best’, and when it might not be. Generally, your organizational culture will limit what is ‘best’ for you.
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Of course, that part about “there are no immutable laws” applies to the advice in this post (unfortunately). I’ve learned these lessons the hard way, but your mileage in applying them will vary.

Did I miss any important lessons from the article? Do you disagree with my immutable laws? Let me know in the comment box!

* Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

  • Rob

    Great post Mike. I think this is something that people *know* in a cognitive way, but don’t really apply, or believe, or practice. Somehow, we need to stop managers from looking for that magic bullet. The only way I know to break out of the pattern is to stop looking for it by ceasing to believe in its existence.

  • Rob,

    You’re right about what it would take to get managers to stop looking for ‘magic bullets’. But there’s too much money to be made selling them, so the belief will be fed well for a long time.