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There Are Few Things As Dangerous As A Big Idea Misunderstood

2023 July 9

In 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama published an essay in the journal The National Interest titled The End of History, which led to a bestselling book. Many took his argument to mean that, with the defeat of communism, US-style liberal democracy had emerged as the only viable way of organizing a society.

He was misunderstood. Fukuyama pointed out that even if we had reached an endpoint in the debate about ideologies, there would still be conflict because of people’s need to express their identity. What many thought to be a justification, was actually a warning to expect people to rebel against an order imposed on them.

If you believe history is on your side, you’re likely to throw caution to the wind, get mixed up in things you shouldn’t and, eventually, you’ll pay a price. That’s the problem with big ideas, their nuance is often lost on those who hear them third or fourth hand and the high-stakes game of broken telephone tends to end badly. We need to approach ideas with more care.

The Global Village

Marshal McLuhan’s book  Understanding Media, was one of the most influential works of the 20th century. In it, he described media as “extensions of man” and predicted that electronic media would eventually lead to a global village. Communities would no longer be tied to a single, isolated physical space but connect and interact with others on a world stage.

To many, the rise of the Internet confirmed McLuhan’s prophecy and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, digital entrepreneurs saw their work elevated to a sacred mission. In Facebook’s IPO filing, Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.

Yet, importantly, McLuhan did not see the global village as a peaceful place. In fact, he predicted it would lead to a new form of tribalism and result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” greater than ever in human history, as long separated—and emotionally charged—cultural norms would now constantly intermingle, clash and explode.

For many, if not most, people on earth, the world is often a dark and dangerous place. For predators, “open” is less of an opportunity to connect than it is a vulnerability to exploit. Things can look fundamentally different from the vantage point of, say, a tech company in Menlo Park, California then it does from, say, a secured facility in St. Petersburg.

Context matters. Our most lethal failures are less often those of planning, logic or execution than they are that of imagination. Chances are, most of the world does not see things the way we do. We need to avoid strategic solipsism and constantly question our own assumptions.

The Paradigm Shift

The term paradigm shift has become so common that we scarcely stop to think about where it came from. When Thomas Kuhn first introduced the concept in his 1962 classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he described not just an event, but a process that he noticed had pervaded the history of science.

It starts with an established model, the kind we learn in school or during initial training for a career. Models become established because they are effective and the more proficient we become at applying a good model, the better we perform. We then rise through the ranks and become successful.

Yet no model is perfect and eventually anomalies show up. Initially, these are regarded as “special cases” and are worked around. However, as the number of special cases proliferate, the model becomes increasingly untenable and a crisis ensues. At this point, a fundamental change in assumptions needs to take place if things are to move forward.

However, as Kuhn noted, the shift in thinking almost never goes smoothly. Most experts cling to the old model, because that’s what made them successful in the first place. The physicist Max Planck, who helped shift a number of paradigms himself, pointed out that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

The idea of paradigms shifting seems so hopeful and romantic that we often forget how hard it is for people’s mental models to change. The simple fact is that any time you set out to make a significant impact there will be people who won’t like it and will work to undermine you in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive.

Disruptive Innovation

In the 1990s, a newly minted professor at Harvard Business School named Clayton Christensen began studying why good companies fail. What he found was surprising. They weren’t failing because they lost their way, but rather  because they were following time-honored principles taught at his institution, such as listening to their customers, investing in R&D and improving their products.

As he researched further he realized that, under certain circumstances, a market becomes over-served, the basis of competition changes and firms become vulnerable to a new type of competitor. In his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, he coined the term disruptive technology to describe what he saw.

It was an idea whose time had come. The book became a major bestseller and Christensen the world’s top business guru. Yet many began to see disruption as more than a special case, but a mantra; an end in itself rather than a means to an end. This wasn’t, to be fair, what he envisioned, but things took on a life of themselves.

The results of all this disruption have been, by just about every measure, awful. Despite the hype, productivity growth has been depressed for most of the last 30 years. Our economy has become markedly less productive, less competitive and less dynamic, Income inequality is at levels not seen for a century and most American families are worse off.

Beware Of The Cult Of Inevitability

Big ideas are powerful because they encapsulate an essential truth. When Fukuyama wrote about “the end of history,” it really did mark a turning point in human affairs, just as Marshall McLuhan’s concept of a “global village” identified a shift in communications, Kuhn’s model of a paradigm shift helped us understand how scientific breakthroughs occur and Christensen’s ideas about disruptive innovation alerted us to dangers and opportunities we weren’t aware of.

Yet these ideas were important precisely because they described complex things. Once they rise to the level of a meme, we tend to discard the complex core and focus only on the candy shell. The concept becomes a caricature of itself, repeated so often that few stop to think about its implications and limitations, where it applies and where it does not.

The problem with big ideas is that they can seem so inevitable that we ignore human agency. If we are truly at an “end of history,” then decisions don’t really matter. A “global village” can seem like such a nice place that we ignore dangers from bad actors. If we believe we are on the right side of a “paradigm shift,” we may not notice those who are working to undermine what we are trying to achieve. “Disruption” can seem so cool we forget about the disrupted.

As Warren Berger explains in A More Beautiful Question, questions are more valuable than answers because, while answers tend to close a discussion, questions help us open new doors and can lead to genuine breakthroughs. That’s the value of big ideas. They can help us ask better questions.

But once we start looking to big ideas for answers, we stop exploring the world around us, our world constricts and, ultimately, we find that we are lost.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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