by Bob Lewis

A Holiday Card to the Industry, 2010

Dec 21, 2010
IT Leadership

It's the surprises in life that keep you going. Have a happy, and surprising holidays season.

It’s the surprises in life that keep you going. Have a happy, and surprising holidays season.

“Once you have flown, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been, there you long to return.”

– Leonardo Da Vinci

Recently, scientists at CERN split mercury nuclei for the first time. They expected two zirconium nuclei. What they got was ruthenium and krypton.

For some of us, it’s remarkable enough that they could tell. Knowing enough about fission that this result is surprising is even more remarkable.

For the particle physics community, the gift was the surprise itself. Expected results tell researchers they’re on the right track, but unforeseen results? They can open a whole new field of inquiry. If you’re a scientist, that’s what you hope for.

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Avatar was visually stunning. The production technology was astounding. The movie itself? As my daughter Kimberly put it, Avatar was Pocahontas without the music. 162 minutes of nothing unexpected.

Contrast that with Field of Dreams. The special effects were unimpressive, but when I watched it for the first time there wasn’t a single moment when I knew what was going to happen next. Marvelous!

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In business we expend tremendous effort to avoid surprises. It wouldn’t be wrong to define professional management as the discipline of surprise prevention. The best-run businesses understand their marketplaces and inner workings well enough to predict the impact of every initiative they envision before they put them into practice.

This, in fact, is why business theorists have been so fascinated … obsessed might be a better term … with process design and management. Process is supposed to provide repeatable, predictable results.

But that isn’t where value comes from. Value comes from uniqueness, and from surprise. Apple, for example, succeeds by developing products that aren’t just like everything else. Does Apple have a process for innovating unexpected products?

I’d say no, by definition. A practice, perhaps, but not a process. No series of steps can, in the absence of inspiration, lead to the brilliantly new. The formulas I’ve seen resemble Sidney Harris’s famous mathematical proof … the one whose key step states, “And then a miracle occurs.”

Processes that prevent innovation, on the other hand? Heck, that’s what most of ’em are for.

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My wife and I enjoy a local event called “Art Attack.” Not because every artist’s work is brilliant … far from it, many had only one idea, painted on a hundred canvases … but because a handful are unique and startling.

That’s the difference between art and decoration: The greatest art is so valuable in part because there’s only one original Starry Night, I and the Village, and Abduction of Europa. Or none: The “original” of Picasso’s Flashlight Centaur vanished as he drew it.

Uniqueness alone isn’t artistic merit, of course. The best art is also disturbing in some way … not necessarily in the sense of creating distress, but necessarily in the sense of moving things to a new and unexpected arrangement.

Art shouldn’t leave you unchanged.

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Neither should people. Yes, I know, we’re each unique, just like everyone else. Even being unusual is something of a challenge on a planet that’s getting close to 7 billion human inhabitants.

And yet, when I think about what I treasure in the people I know it’s their ability to occasionally surprise me. And no matter how well I think I know my friends and family, every so often they’ll pop out with a remark that makes my jaw drop.

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The holiday season is filled with awful trends. There’s the trend of having it start earlier every year … I think it now begins January 23rd. There’s the dueling trend of being afraid to mention Christmas and taking offense when someone doesn’t.

There’s the annual showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

But the worst trend is the joyous swapping of gift cards. What’s the point? Let’s cut out the intermediary — instead of buying gift cards for each other, why don’t we each just go shopping for ourselves and have done with it?

The most fun you can have when unwrapping presents is discovering something someone else found for you that you didn’t even know was a thing. Gift cards? Bah, humbug.

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Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy tells of psychologists so advanced they can predict with precision how society will evolve, and how it would respond to any imagined stimulus.

Asimov was personally brilliant. He was a wonderful raconteur. He was one of the pioneers who invented modern speculative fiction.

His characters, however, rarely achieved two dimensions … even those who lived in four or more … and so he never described the debilitating depression that would have afflicted members of the “Second Foundation.” What a horrible world they must have inhabited, with little chance of ever experiencing a surprise.

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Predictability is overrated. Here’s to a year of surprises.

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.