Blog: What I really think

Sweet dreams can be made of this

5 February 2019

Today’s the day: my new book is officially out!!  Bedtime Stories for Managers, created from these blogs. Here, exclusive to you (aside from the millions of enthralled readers-to-be), is the introduction to the book:

Good evening…

Offline? Excellent. Welcome to Bedtime Stories for Managers, a playful book with a serious message: management has to come down from lofty leadership, to grounded engagement. How so? By organizing like a cow instead of a chart…so that strategies can grow like weeds in a garden…as extraordinary ideas come from ordinary people…who are distinctively worldly instead of cookie-cutter global.

Today’s the day: my new book is officially out!!  Bedtime Stories for Managers, created from these blogs. Here, exclusive to you (aside from the millions of enthralled readers-to-be), is the introduction to the book:

Good evening…

Offline? Excellent. Welcome to Bedtime Stories for Managers, a playful book with a serious message: management has to come down from lofty leadership, to grounded engagement. How so? By organizing like a cow instead of a chart…so that strategies can grow like weeds in a garden…as extraordinary ideas come from ordinary people…who are distinctively worldly instead of cookie-cutter global.

The first story sets the tone, telling how the CEO of a failing airline sat in First Class while his customers in back had to eat what was called scrambled eggs. In a world as scrambled as ours, managers have to eat those eggs.

A few years ago, I began a blog (mintzberg.org/blog) to capture a lifetime of ideas buried in obscure publications. Then I came across a book of stories for the fans of the Montreal hockey team, 101 in all. Perfect bedtime reading!—a little story or two before dozing off. Why not a book of blogs for managers? What better time than now, by which I mean bedtime, after the managing has stopped—if it ever does.

Consider the organizations that you know and admire most:

  • Do they function as collections of human resources or as communities of human beings?
  • Does thinking always come first, or do they see first, and do first, in order to think better?
  • Do they measure like mad or serve with soul?
  • Must they be the best, or do their best?

If you opted for the first set of answers, read this book to discover the second. If you opted for the second set of answers, read this book to cope with those who opted for the first.

From more than 101 blogs, I selected 42 that seem to speak most meaningfully to managers. Books, I am told, need chapters, so I organized these under headings like managing, organizing, analyzing, and so on. I am also told that chapters need introductions, to tell you what the writer is going to tell you. Here I drew the line: no introductions. I prefer that you discover these stories for yourself in whatever order you prefer. I do ask that you read the first story first and the last story last, but otherwise feel free to peruse at random—as good managers sometimes do.

As you turn the pages, I’d like you to wonder what in the world is coming next. I’ll give you a hint: a medley of metaphors. Beside cows and gardens, cutting cookies and scrambling eggs, get ready for the maestro myth of managing, the soft underbelly of hard data, the board as bee, and downsizing as bloodletting. Just try not to be outraged by anything you read because some of my most outrageous ideas turn out to be my best. They just take time to become obvious.

This may be a book about managing, but don’t expect any magic bullets. I leave those to the books that compound the problem. Instead expect unexpected insights to sleep on so that you can rise and shine and, after eating some properly scrambled eggs, charge out to unscramble the messes of managing. You, your colleagues, even your family might just live a little more happily ever after.

Sweet dreams!

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. If you insist on ordering the book, so that you can finally have a good night’s sleep, please click here…quietly.

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...about listening

1 March 2018

I write a good deal about the disconnect of leaders/managers from the ongoing activities of their organizations. An organization can’t be run by remote control: people “on top” have to get on the ground to see what is going on. And, no less, to hear what is happening.

I write a good deal about the disconnect of leaders/managers from the ongoing activities of their organizations. An organization can’t be run by remote control: people “on top” have to get on the ground to see what is going on. And, no less, to hear what is happening.

Let me give you an example from the thin air. I am doing a collection of my blogs, using the title “Managing Scrambled Eggs” because the first story is about the CEO of a failing airline who sat in First Class while the passengers in the back had to eat some excuse for scrambled eggs. I was one of them, and when I asked the flight attendant why they served this stuff, she said: “I know, we keep telling them; they won’t listen.“ How can that be?  If they were running a cemetery, I might understand not listening to the customers. But an airline? Feasting in First Class is not leadership, let alone management. Among the most important qualities of managers who truly lead is a captivating capacity to listen, really listen.

In my book Managing the Myths of Health Care, I cite a study of patients who were explaining their problems to physicians: on average, they were interrupted after 23 seconds1… and rarely had a chance to continue! Modern medicine makes a thing about being evidence-based. Sure, evidence is important, as the collected experiences of many people. But how about the particular experience of the person right there? If medicine had to rely solely on evidence, without tangible experience, it would shut down. Evidence puts numbers on abstracted experience; listening to someone’s full message brings out what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” We need this to understand what is happening, beyond just putting people into pat categories.

How about this example of the difference between evidence and experience, from my own experience, and probably yours too in one way or another. If you go biking in the mountains, say up to a pass and back down, you will have done four times as much uphill as downhill. Everyone I tell this to is puzzled:  Haven’t I gone exactly the same distance up as down? Sure, but we don’t experience distance, we experience time. Distance is an abstract calculation in our brain; time is what we feel in our body We may boast about having done so many kilometers, but while doing them, believe me, what we are acutely aware of is the effort, across the hours, not the kilometers. When we are living an experience, it’s not the numbers that count but the feeling—what our body is telling us. Listen to it too!

How often have we heard that “Gerry just doesn’t listen” or that “Sally is such a good listener!” By listening to others, we get in touch with them, and thus with ourselves. So let’s spend more time listening to what really matters: listening to our partners, to our children, to our friends, to our patients, to our employees, to our managers, to ourselves, and especially to our bodies.

© Henry Mintzberg 2018, who can be listened to on mintzberg.org/videos.

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1Marvel, M., R. Epstein, K. Flowers, and H. Beckman. (1999). Soliciting the Patient’s Agenda: Have We Improved?  JAMA  281(3): 283-287.

The truth about Truth

5 May 2016

Last week I raised the issue of truth, concerning my comments about orchestra conductors. In early 2015 I did a blog about truth, which is revisited this week, with some editing.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?

Not long after that, in 1535, Jacque Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed way up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There he saw a mountain, which was later named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat.

Last week I raised the issue of truth, concerning my comments about orchestra conductors. In early 2015 I did a blog about truth, which is revisited this week, with some editing.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?

Not long after that, in 1535, Jacque Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed way up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There he saw a mountain, which was later named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat.

Mount Royal from my Montreal office. Sorry about what Santa, my assistant, calls our stained glass windows. They are not cleaned in the winter.

Why must I tell you this? Because we have to appreciate that while facts may be true—that mountain is there—theories are not. How can they be when they are just generalizations, namely words and symbols on paper or screen, not reality itself?

Theories can, however, be useful, or not, depending on the circumstances. The flat earth theory is still quite useful for building football fields in Holland.  (Can you imagine an engineer saying: “Please raise one end a millimeter or two to correct for the curvature of the earth”?) But when it comes to sailing ships, the round earth theory works much better (even though the earth is not round—it bulges at the equator—although what to do with the oblong theory of the earth I do not know). And anyone who likes to climb mountains has to be a fan of the bumpy earth theory (although I heard somewhere that if we reduced the size of the earth to a billiard ball, we would not be able to feel Mount Everest).

Many proper scientists just don’t get it. They fight with each other furiously over their respective theories, without recognizing that all may be right, and wrong, depending on the circumstances. Don’t we still make greater use of Newton’s theory of mechanics, which was supposedly debunked by Einstein’s theory of relativity? It has been much the same with those economists who poo-pooed Keynesian theory for years, only to rediscover it during the recent financial crisis.

There has been concern of late about the measles vaccine: by failing to have their children inoculated, parents are being accused—rightly—of putting other children at risk. To convince these parents, proper scientists and physicians have been announcing that the vaccine has been proved safe. This is not true, nor is it proper science, which can disprove beliefs but never quite prove them.1 The truth is, so to speak, that the tests have not found the vaccine to be harmful, so far. If you doubt the difference between these two wordings, consider all the medical treatments that were declared safe only to be later declared unsafe. Science marches on, unpredictably.

So beware of any claims about truth in theory, including those that I have advanced furiously in these TWOGs. But do check out the claims about their usefulness, while keeping your mind open for the next theory that comes along. As D.O. Hebb, the great psychologist, put it: “A good theory is one that holds together long enough to get you to a better theory.” (He worked at McGill, and probably looked out at the same mountain—unchanged.)

© Henry Mintzberg 2015/6   Photo © Lisa Mintzberg Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. I also just started a new Facebook page.


1 Karl Popper wrote a famous book entitled The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which was not about the discovery of theories—the interesting part—but about the falsification of them. Another assistant of mine once typed his name as Karl Propper.

Some quotes about Truth:

“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths.” (A.N. Whitehead)

“Add a few drops of malice to a half-truth and you have an absolute truth.” (Eric Hoffer)

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” (Andre Gide)

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” (Niels Bohr)

“All astrologers are liars. Even when an astrologer tells the truth, he is lying.” (proverb)

 

...about family business

4 February 2016

I am a fan of family business, if only it could resolve its problems of succession. I have suspicions about sons who follow their fathers into the business and even greater suspicions about fathers who insist that a son take over the helm. (I am writing from my personal experiences about this, which go way back, when mothers and daughters were rarely in the picture. I’ll get back to this below.) Family businesses need to cast their succession nets widely, but not into the stock market.

Following the father  My father was an entrepreneur, not a major one but successful enough. He built a business in the garment industry that kept us comfortable. I came out of the womb claiming I would never work for my father. So when the time came, I became an academic and he eventually sold the business.

I am a fan of family business, if only it could resolve its problems of succession. I have suspicions about sons who follow their fathers into the business and even greater suspicions about fathers who insist that a son take over the helm. (I am writing from my personal experiences about this, which go way back, when mothers and daughters were rarely in the picture. I’ll get back to this below.) Family businesses need to cast their succession nets widely, but not into the stock market.

Following the father  My father was an entrepreneur, not a major one but successful enough. He built a business in the garment industry that kept us comfortable. I came out of the womb claiming I would never work for my father. So when the time came, I became an academic and he eventually sold the business.

Many of the kids I grew up with were also raised in entrepreneurial families, but came out of their wombs differently. They went to work in their family businesses, almost automatically. A few did fine, and the occasional one grew the business substantially. But most either sustained the business for as long as they could or else dragged it down. And no few encountered rivalries with relatives and left the business, to settle into a life of investing whatever remained of their inheritances. All told, the record was not good: out of all the businesses I knew about when I grew up—some of them quite prominent—few remain.

The most prominent of all followed a well-known trajectory: the first generation makes it, the second generation sustains it, the third generation blows it. Sam Bronfman of Montreal built a fortune in whiskey (Distillers Seagrams); he was reputed to be the richest person in the world at one time. His son Edgar took the heart of the business to New York, where he sustained it until his son, the junior Sam, enamored of film-making, blew it in an ill-considered merger with a company called Vivendi.

Being born to a business genius, let alone inheriting the wealth of one, has never made anyone a business genius. Nor does it necessarily bestow the ingenuity and energy necessary to run a vibrant company. But being surrounded by sycophants well aware of the wealth has turned many an offspring into an arrogant failure. I do, however, have great respect for the real entrepreneurs, the ones who build and love their businesses.

Now here comes Fred. He contacted me out of the blue, to visit from Singapore and talk about management. When I discovered Fred to be the third generation head of the family’s big shipping company, I thought: Oh oh, not another one of those.

In good family fashion, Fred arrived with his daughter and brother as well as an assistant. As soon as I saw him, my impression changed: he didn’t look the third generation part. We hit it off immediately, dining, going off for cake, marching around to buy some of Montreal’s famous bagels. Fred’s a fun guy. We became friends. So what’s the story?

Fred too was determined not to work for his father. So as a young man he borrowed some money, went off to Malaysia, made his own money, and came back: to buy every one of the family businesses, one by one! That’s an entrepreneur!! Fred was not about to go through a whole process with his siblings, he told me, so in effect he bought them out—through his father.

Blame the father?  Now let’s consider succession from the other side. Why are so many clever entrepreneurs so dumb when it comes to succession? Why are they determined to pass the baton on to their own kids, usually a son? This is like playing Russian roulette with 5 bullets in the 6 cylinders.

A study some years ago suggested that entrepreneurs often develop in families with strong mothers and weak fathers—the latter ne’er-do-wells, or drunkards, or simply absent. This is certainly not always true, but it does seem to be rather common. Perhaps the son becomes the surrogate father at home, strong and responsible—not bad traits for an entrepreneur. So when I meet an entrepreneur intent on being succeeded by his son, I ask: “Was your father a great businessman?” Often not. “So what makes you think your son is?”

Casting the net widely  What I like about family business is the spirit that is often present, the soul of the place, and a certain respect for the customers and the employees. This is certainly not always true—some entrepreneurial firms are the worst in these regards—yet it is true often enough. But the question of succession has to be resolved, and these days the IPO (Initial Public Offering, on the stock market) is a lousy solution, at least if that spirit is to be carried forward. Surely we have enough mercenaries in stock markets running around killing decent company cultures. There can be something precious about a family legacy, for the family to be sure, but also for the economy.

Don’t get me wrong: there are sons who are natural successors—to sustain the legacy and grow the business—if only the fathers can distinguish the ones who truly are. Learning the business from a devoted parent can be a profound form of training. And increasingly these days, there are daughters who are natural and interested successors too, maybe more so because of a different relationship with their fathers. (For one thing, the fathers may be more inclined to listen to them! Does this suggest that sons may be the more natural successors to entrepreneurial mothers?!)

The net can also be cast wider. Cousins were significantly responsible for DuPont’s great success. They offer more choices for succession. And it was a son-in-law who made Marks and Spencer’s a great company. (Perhaps some daughters are inclined to marry a man in the fathers’ image.)

And how about family trusts for large firms, as have been created for Tata and Novo Nordisk? Both companies have shares listed on the stock market, yet keep voting control in the trusts. The family spirit might be retained while the choice of who runs the company next is widened. Indeed, the offspring may be better suited to overseeing the family trust (as other offspring often end up doing anyway).

A vibrant economy is developed by people who build, not hang on. A democratic society is reinforced by people who succeed by their own wits, not some birthright. We need people who chart their own course, even if that means coming back to buy their family’s own businesses.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing at mintzberg.org/blog.

The best is too low a standard

1 October 2015

In 1997, Stuart Crainer met me at Heathrow Airport as I arrived overnight from Montreal.  It was the only time we could connect, to interview me for a book he was writing with Des Dearlove about management ideas and gurus.

This guru business must be very competitive, Stuart suggested. Not at all, I said: I never felt any competition. And then I blurted this out in my jet-lagged stupor (words I remember clearly): “I never set out to be the best. It’s too low a standard. I set out to be good.”

This may sound arrogant, but I did not mean it that way at all. I was not claiming to be better than the best, just beside the very quest for being the best. How can anyone tell the best anyway? (Was Mozart better than Beethoven?) What I meant is that exceptional work is done by people who compete with themselves, not anyone else. They do their best.

In 1997, Stuart Crainer met me at Heathrow Airport as I arrived overnight from Montreal.  It was the only time we could connect, to interview me for a book he was writing with Des Dearlove about management ideas and gurus.

This guru business must be very competitive, Stuart suggested. Not at all, I said: I never felt any competition. And then I blurted this out in my jet-lagged stupor (words I remember clearly): “I never set out to be the best. It’s too low a standard. I set out to be good.”

This may sound arrogant, but I did not mean it that way at all. I was not claiming to be better than the best, just beside the very quest for being the best. How can anyone tell the best anyway? (Was Mozart better than Beethoven?) What I meant is that exceptional work is done by people who compete with themselves, not anyone else. They do their best.

Was Edith Piaf the best? Who knows? But was she ever good! Indeed, she was incomparable, and so in no danger of being labelled the best. Michael Porter, the Harvard strategy guru, has written extensively about how to be competitive in business and health care. With whom was Mike himself competing when he wrote his landmark books Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage?

The best story about this—well, actually a really good one—comes from Sylvie Bernier, who won the gold medal for diving at the 1984 Olympic Games. I got to know Sylvie when she did our International Masters for Health Leadership (imhl.org). One day I asked her what really distinguishes those athletes who win such high honors.

Sylvie told me an extra-ordinary story—not about other Olympic medalists, but about her own experience. When she got into the finals, she blocked off everyone and everything: her coach, her parents, journalists, TV and radio—any source that could possibly tell her how she was doing. Sure she wanted to be the best—that’s in the nature of such an event (there is, after all, only one gold medal)—but her means to get there was by doing her best, competing with herself above all.

As she came up from that last dive, Sylvie could not have known whether she won gold or nothing. Maybe that’s why she won gold.

So let’s drop, not our standards, but our obsession with being the best, so that we can get on with being as good as we can possibly can.

Stuart and Des now run the prominent Thinkers50. Since 2001 it has been ranking these gurus of the management world. I used to be on that list, but eventually, with we older guys dropping down (the likes of Tom Peters, Warren Bennis, and Phil Kotler), they kicked a bunch of us upstairs, to their Management Hall of Fame, and thus no longer eligible to be ranked among these best.

That caused a bit of a fuss on the part of one of our colleagues, who had a new book coming out and could have used the publicity. So on his behalf, I had some correspondence with Stuart and Des, wondering if the voting component of the ranking was flawed. (One person, who ranked somewhat high but in my opinion deserved to be low, was writing to everyone he knew to vote for him. People obsessed with being “the best” tend to do such things.)

Stuart and Des wrote back to me, explaining that voting was “just one element” of the Thinkers50 selection process, and that the list should reflect “current trends, preferences, and favorites.” Noted, too, was that ”the business world is moving fast. Managers are relentlessly interested in what is new and fashionable.” True enough—unfortunately.

Anyway, I survived that. And now, today to be specific, Stuart and Des are announcing that I have been chosen to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at their gala in London next month. They have explained that “The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to someone who has had a long-term impact on the way people think about and practice management.” It has only been given twice before, to Charles Handy of the UK in 2011 and Jiro Nonaka of Japan in 2013.

So thank you Stuart and Des for honoring me, alongside your best, for being good.

Best,
Henry

© Henry Mintzberg 2015

…about “Why not?” people

7 May 2015

Someone once said that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. George Bernard Shaw must have been the former, because he wrote that ““You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why Not?’”

Americans have long been the ultimate “Why not?” people of the world. “Sure, let’s try it. Whatever.” This “anything goes” spirit still permeates American entrepreneurship, with all kinds of people having all kinds of crazy business ideas, some of which even work.

Someone once said that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. George Bernard Shaw must have been the former, because he wrote that ““You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why Not?’”

Americans have long been the ultimate “Why not?” people of the world. “Sure, let’s try it. Whatever.” This “anything goes” spirit still permeates American entrepreneurship, with all kinds of people having all kinds of crazy business ideas, some of which even work.

But politically the U.S. has become more of a “Why?” country. Too often the public discourse asks “Why?” instead of exploring “Why not?’. “Why should we do that?” For example, why get rid of the Electoral College, even if it did elect a president who came second in the popular vote (George W. Bush in 2000)? The consequence is that the country so renowned for embracing technological change is experiencing a good deal of social gridlock.

I think the Brazilians have now become the “Why not?” people of the world. “Sure, let’s try it.” Brazilian expressions are indicative of this spirit, for example dar um jeitinho, meaning to find a way around, and quebrar um galho, literally to break a branch and so create a way through. When French President Charles de Gaulle allegedly declared that Brazil was not a serious country, rather than being insulted, most Brazilians were amused, even proud.

As a consequence, Brazilians are in the vanguard of addressing problems in creative and pragmatic ways. For example, an ethanol initiative brings this alternative to gasoline into every automobile; there is community participation in the budgeting of many municipalities; the Liberation Theology movement has been carried furthest in Brazil; and, not surprisingly, the World Social Forum started in Brazil as a counter to the World Economic Forum of Davos.

Particularly telling is how the country dealt with its HIV/AIDS crisis. While the World Bank was issuing dire predictions about the spread of the disease there, Brazilians were innovating in all kinds of compelling ways, for example by distributing millions of condoms at Carnaval and introducing stories in their famous soap operas about living with AIDS.

As Gui Azevedo, a Brazilian, wrote in a 2012 article we co-authored about the “Why not?” people of Brazil: in place of “any identifiable leader, or general blueprint, was a great deal of creative cooperation,” including associations of homosexuals, prostitutes, and haemophiliacs. The government was also deeply involved, challenging the global status quo on pharmaceutical patents:

Unable to convince pharmaceutical multinationals to reduce the price of antiretroviral drugs, and facing American threats of economic sanctions and punitive tariffs, the Brazilian Ministry of Health…ordered federal research laboratories to develop the necessary technology and granted “compulsory licenses” to produce the medications locally. Eventually, surprised by the laboratories’ success…major multinational pharmaceutical companies agreed to negotiate royalty rights. When, in 2001, the United States challenged Brazil’s compulsory licensing at the WTO, Brazil responded in the United Nations Human Rights Commission, pushing for a vote on AIDS treatment as a human right, which passed with a 52-0 vote, the U.S. being the only country to abstain.

In 1990, the World Bank estimated that in a decade Brazil would have 1,200,000 infections. In 2002, it had fewer than 600,000.

Hope lies with the “Why not?” people of the world, who keep searching for new and better ways. Of course, one need not live in a “Why not?” country to be a “Why not?” person. Nor need one be greatly creative to come up with a creative solution. Many a “Why not?” person has stumbled across a solution that has changed the world. (See the March 5 TWOG on “The Extraordinary Power of Ordinary Creativity.”)

© Henry Mintzberg 2015, Excerpted from Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center (Berrett-Koefler, 2015).

The truth about Truth

12 March 2015

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?

In 1535, Jacques Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There the natives took him up a mountain, which he named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat, but bumpy.

Why must I tell you this? Because we have to appreciate that while facts may be true—that mountain is there—theories are not. How can they be when they are just generalizations--words and symbols on papers and screens--not reality itself?

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?

In 1535, Jacques Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There the natives took him up a mountain, which he named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat, but bumpy.

Why must I tell you this? Because we have to appreciate that while facts may be true—that mountain is there—theories are not. How can they be when they are just generalizations--words and symbols on papers and screens--not reality itself?

Theories can, however, be useful, or not, depending on the circumstances. The flat earth theory is quite useful for building football fields in Holland. (“Please raise that end a millimeter or two to correct for the curvature of the earth”??) But when it comes to sailing ships, the round earth theory works much better. (Actually the earth is not round—it bulges at the equator—but what to do with the oblong theory of the earth I do not know.) And anyone who likes to climb mountains has to be a big fan of the bumpy earth theory (although I heard somewhere that if we reduced the size of the earth to a billiard ball, we would not be able to feel Mount Everest).

Many proper scientists just don’t get it. They fight with each other furiously over their respective theories, without recognizing that all may be right, and wrong, depending on the circumstances. Don’t we still make greater use of Newton’s theory of mechanics than Einstein’s theory of relativity, which supposedly debunked it? (Now it’s Einstein’s theory that is being challenged.) It has been much the same with those economists who pooh-poohed Keynesian theory for years, only to rediscover it during the recent financial crisis.

Currently there is concern about the measles vaccine. By failing to have their children inoculated, parents are being accused—rightly—of putting others at risk. To convince these parents, proper scientists and physicians are announcing that the vaccine has been proved safe. This is not true at all. Nor is this proper science, which can disprove theories but never prove them.1

What these people should be saying is that the tests have indicated that the vaccine has not been found to be harmful—so far. If you doubt the difference between these two wordings, consider all the medical treatments that were declared safe only to be later declared dangerous.

So beware of any claims about truth in theory, including those that I have advanced furiously in these TWOGs. But do check out the claims about their usefulness, while keeping your mind open for the next theory that comes along. As D.O. Hebb, the great psychologist, put it: “A good theory is one that holds together long enough to get you to a better theory.” (He worked at McGill—his office must have faced that mountain too.)

Stain glass window
Mount Royal from my Montreal office. Sorry about what Santa, my assistant, calls our stain glass windows. They are not cleaned in the winter.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015   Photo © Lisa Mintzberg 2015

1. Karl Popper wrote a famous book entitled The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which was not about the discovery of theories—the interesting part--but about the falsification of them. An assistant of mine once typed his name as Propper—another Typo.

Some more quotes about Truth:

“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths.” (A.N. Whitehead)

“Add a few drops of malice to a half-truth and you have an absolute truth.” (Eric Hoffer)

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” (André Gide)

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” (Niels Bohr)

“All astrologers are liars. Even when an astrologer tells the truth, he is lying.” (proverb)

How Eggs on End Upend Correct Science

12 September 2014

It’s time to stand up an egg, for the sake of upstanding science.

At a party in a loft some years ago, our host announced that “Today is the equinox. We can set eggs up on their ends!” He brought out a few cartons of them, and we all stood some up. (At one point, when I moved, my egg shook but didn’t fall.)

Ever since, twice a year—and more recently three times after someone said it works around the Chinese New Year too—I set eggs up on their ends. (See the video below. By the way, only some eggs work, and on the pointy ends too, plus once up, an egg can stay for months.)

Apparently I am in good company. Or bad. There is an age-old belief about setting eggs up on the equinox, but you won’t catch a lot of proper scientists trying to do it.

It’s time to stand up an egg, for the sake of upstanding science.

At a party in a loft some years ago, our host announced that “Today is the equinox. We can set eggs up on their ends!” He brought out a few cartons of them, and we all stood some up. (At one point, when I moved, my egg shook but didn’t fall.)

Ever since, twice a year—and more recently three times after someone said it works around the Chinese New Year too—I set eggs up on their ends. (See the video below. By the way, only some eggs work, and on the pointy ends too, plus once up, an egg can stay for months.)

Apparently I am in good company. Or bad. There is an age-old belief about setting eggs up on the equinox, but you won’t catch a lot of proper scientists trying to do it.

I do this to remind whomever I can that this is a fascinating world, well beyond what science has been able to explain. “Why does this happen?” people keep asking me, and I keep replying: “I don’t have a clue.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It happens in the same inexplicable ways that dogs find their way home across great distances, that tiny needles work for some of our ills, and that the signs of the sun and the moon identify a remarkable amount of our behavior. Yet it is not proper to believe such things.

I heard mention on the radio a few days ago of science defined as “formalized curiosity.” That sounds right to me. But maybe not to the guardians of the scientific gates, correct scientists whose curiosity ends where curious ideas begin. Unfortunately, science with restricted curiosity is like love with restricted emotions.

Creative scientists are happy to entertain curiosities (as did Einstein, Freud, and Turing with psychic and related phenomena; Turing, the great mathematician, referred to the statistical evidence for telepathy as “overwhelming”, despite how much “we should like to discredit” that evidence.) The facts are in control; like it or not, the eggs stand on their ends.

A couple of days ago, with this TWOG about to be uplifted to the Internet, I began to worry. What if eggs could be set up on other days? From time to time I had tried to do so, but, assured of my own correctness, I did this casually—was it not obvious how quickly the eggs came off the balance point, compared with how they hovered there on those three days?)

That night I couldn’t sleep. Earlier I had downloaded an article on the web about all this (http://francesa.phy.cmich.edu/people/osborn/egg1.html), gave it a glance, and dismissed it. I knew I was right; why confuse myself with more evidence? Now I decided I had better take a closer look, so at 3 am back to it I went.

The author worked in a university physics department no less, and reported day by day on his experiments over the course of months. Several days before the equinox of 23 September 1998, his initial efforts failed. But as he got closer, and for a few days after the equinox, he succeeded. (One egg stayed up a long time, and, like mine, could be put back up when it was knocked over.) The crunch came where he reported that he had succeeded on a few other days too.

I went straight to the fridge to find an egg that I would be unable to stand up. But there was none, so I went back to sleep. In the morning, yesterday, I went out and bought some eggs. The second one that I tried stayed up. Oh Oh! (I ate that egg, not to destroy the evidence, but because I was hungry.)

So what is left standing after all this? Eggs, for sure. No question: some can be stood on their ends around the two equinoxes as well as the Chinese New Year (not to mention possible other days). Also left standing is curious science, if not correct science.

And so I ask you, on the upcoming equinox (22 September), or sooner if you dare, to take a stand for the cause of curiosity.

Video, courtesy Leslie Breitner

Reference: “Can a Machine Think?” by A.M. Turing, in Computers and Thought, E. A. Feigenbaum and J. Feldman (editors), Computers and Thought, Menlo Park CA: AAAI Press/MIT press, 1995 (reprint of 1963 edition) http://www.loebner.net/Prizef/TuringArticle.html

© 2014 Henry Mintzberg