ManagementSpeak: What a great idea!

Translation: This is a lot of fun to talk about in meetings. We’ll never do it, of course.

This week’s contributor had a great idea — sending in his brilliant translation of a very common phrase.

It’s Independence Day, and I took the day off. I’m not sure why this re-run seemed like a perfect fit for the occasion, and whether the answer is that it’s just my rationalization or there’s some meta-property the holiday and column share, I don’t know.

I don’t entirely care, either, so long as you give it a read. Whatever else I have to say about it, I like it better than the KJR I was going to write instead.

So enjoy it, and enjoy the occasion, too.



In the late 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz invented calculus more or less concurrently. The question of who published first raged for decades.

In the 1800s, Sir Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace both figured out how new species could arise from existing ones through the force of natural selection. Aware of each other’s work, in 1858 they presented their work together to the Linnaean Society.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray submitted patent applications for the telephone within hours of each other.

But in 1968, when Douglas Engelbart, who passed away recently, presented his live demonstration of a computing system that included the use of a mouse, videoconferencing, word processing, cut-and-paste, hypertext, revision control, and collaborative editing, he was the only person in the world who had put it all together (thanks to Randy Cunningham’s Honorary Unsubscribe for providing, not only the details, but a link to a video of the presentation).

Not the only person in the world to have each of the ideas separately, though … Ted Nelson, for example, had been writing about hypertext since 1963.

We celebrate those who invent something important first. We celebrate those who make important scientific discoveries first. And yet, there’s a certain inevitability to all this. From the inside, these inventions and discoveries are more like races, in which the only question is who will cross the finish line first, than they are like the actions of lone explorers, boldly going where no one has gone before.

Maybe this is why we lionize great leaders more than great scientists and inventors: Without Washington, England probably would have defeated the colonists in the Revolutionary War; without Lincoln, and Grant, the Confederacy probably would have succeeded in seceding; without Roosevelt and Churchill the outcome of World War II would almost certainly have been very different.

Those specific, unique leaders were required. It’s doubtful that, with different leaders, we would have ended up with similar results. Take Lincoln: Had Stephen Douglas won the 1860 election the Confederacy might never have formed and slavery might still be legal. Or, more likely, a very different Civil War might have been fought at a very different time and in a very different way.

This is not true of the great scientists. Take Einstein: Had he never published, the current state of physics would be unaltered.

It’s a hard thought to swallow. Collectively, it’s the scientists of the world who have made our modern world possible. Just look around you and start subtracting everything you depend on that wouldn’t exist had the community of scientists never figured out the laws of thermodynamics, the aforementioned calculus, information theory, and another few dozens or hundreds of disciplines. It’s their byproducts that allow the world to operate with more than 7 billion inhabitants.

The secret is that scientists form communities, and it’s these communities that collectively deserve credit for what we as a species collectively know. The individual scientists who get the most credit are the ones who are just a bit smarter, just a bit quicker, and who work just a bit harder than the rest.

And, to be fair, in some cases are better politicians: Modern physics, for example, is a very expensive discipline; in order to make the big discoveries you first have to gain access to the big equipment.

Understand, I have nothing but respect for the great scientists, and you should too. While there’s no doubt many were and are driven by a sense of competition, they are far more driven by the desire to understand the universe just a bit better than anyone has understood it before.

Just as the great inventors, like Douglas Engelbart, were driven by the desire to make the world just a bit more capable than it was before.

The world of business has more in common with scientists and inventors than with the great political leaders: Should a company fail, while it’s hard on its employees and shareholders, otherwise it doesn’t matter a bit. If a department store closes its doors, shoppers will just buy the same merchandise from someone else; the same is true of just about anyone or any business in the market for goods or services.

Perhaps that’s why the self-importance of some CEOs is so amusing. Even those who help their companies win are, for the most part, simply shifting revenue from another company’s coffers to their own.

It’s just a race. What matters isn’t who wins it. What matters is that enough people are willing to run.