Monday, January 11, 2010

Dumb Like Einstein, and Another Important Heresy

My reaction: 




“God doesn’t play dice with the Universe.” Thus tweeted the Great Albert Einstein in 1926. And, ever since, folks everywhere have been retweeting this profound revelation about God, straight from the Gospel According to Albert.

Problem is, Einstein didn’t exactly say that. Here’s what the man actually wrote, in a letter to pioneering quantum physicist Max Born:

“Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the 'old one'. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.

Albert’s Intellectual Limitations

Turns out Einstein, the man who by 1926 had earned copious major honors by revealing the architecture of the Universe at Large, wasn’t really referring to God in his letter at all. The Great Genius was, in fact, confessing his own difficulty in grasping the basic architecture of the  Quantum Universe of the Very Small. Biased, perhaps, by his subjective familiarity with a personal Almighty, Albert’s “inner voice” had  misinformed his objective understanding of the nature of reality’s littlest things.

Einstein strongly (stubbornly?) believed that randomness in scientific observations resulted from human imperfection in observing and understanding. Make perfect the instruments and sharpen and deepen the theory, he figured, and, poof! like a god, you know everything, and can therefore predict the cosmically enormous set of all possible future events, even the very tiniest ones, with 100% certainty.

This Determinist Einstein just couldn’t accept what his contemporary einstein-tongue-jpgparticle physicists were demonstrating over and over again in their labs. Where certain behaviors of really little things like electrons and photons are concerned, no matter how smart the physicist or perfect her instruments, making certain kinds of predictions about the outcomes of certain quantum phenomena are, well, just plain uncertain.

So, in his oft-paraphrased and widely misunderstood 1926 letter to Max Born, the Great Albert Einstein was, duh! just plain wrong – at least about quantum physics, and perhaps even about God, Who may indeed have some sort of Supreme Gambling Problem.

(Still, “God doesn’t play dice with the Universe” sure sounds right, doesn’t it?)

The Psychological Limitations of “Process” in IT

Wait! Duh! Don’t stop reading. This story has everything to do with Information Technology.

Information Technology’s leaders, of projects and of people, emerge from the fundamentally deterministic world of machines, wherein every action has a 100% predictable outcome. This world, of course, has its unexpected bugs and breakdowns, but the reliable solution for buggy machines is process: time-proven repertoires of well-understood and clearly documented procedures that help mitigate the risks of faulty technology by rigorously squeezing out its pesky uncertainty.

This successful experience with managing machines can easily spur a Quantum Misstep of twisted logic in managing people. “After all,” our inner voice reasons, “aren’t people really just like machines? Of course they are!”

The conclusion sounds right, but it’s dead-wrong. Unlike machines, people, cursed as they are with Free Will, behave, like quantum particles, in fundamentally unpredictable ways. Psychologists have long recognized  a “Human Uncertainty Principle” of sorts: the more confined people feel by the processes their leaders impose on them, the less predictable their organizational behavior becomes. IT leaders see process as governance, but those so governed often perceive it as micro-management. Especially in the most talented and creative, micromanagement triggers rebellion rather than compliance.

Frustrated by process, followers find creative ways to avoid following their leaders. In turn, their leaders, dismissing these little mutinies as failures of their Human machines, sharpen their procedures to tighten the harness and regain control, which only provokes further mutiny. As leaders lend greater and greater weight to following process in order to reduce the degrees of freedom for failure in the groups they manage,  they unwittingly generate a psychological “black hole” that ensnares all chances of success as well. Individual efforts stall, projects slip, and neglected infrastructure eventually sputters and fails.

A Way Out of the Psychological Singularity

Of course, process certainly plays a role in effective management, but it can’t guarantee effective leadership. Go here and begin learning about the non-deterministic, Zen-like principles of Servant-Leadership: that the true path to leading people starts with serving them; that the most effective way to shepherd their efforts is to set them free.

When you come back from reading, try this new kind of “Non-Process” on for size in 2010:

Step 1. Accept intellectually that people behave in non-deterministic ways, and that, particularly in knowledge-worker fields like IT, this necessarily limits your ability to govern their actions.

Step 2. Once you’ve accepted the basic uncertainty of human behavior, you will naturally begin to question your feelings about your colleagues and subordinates. This fresh uncertainty, while uncomfortable at first, is very healthy. Let it teach you:

  • The people you “like” best aren’t necessarily your best people
  • The people you “like” least may, in fact, have the most to offer
  • While, by behaving unpredictably, machines can only bitterly disappoint you, people, with your permission and support, can very pleasantly surprise you.

Step 3. Beyond articulating the details of tasks, your transcendent role as an IT (or any) leader is to reveal the human value of the larger goals you choose to serve.

Step 4. Once the human value of your organization’s goals have been revealed to them, people will drop the heavy baggage of their personal egos and begin to gravitate toward helping you to achieve them. Remember that they aren’t following you as a leader; they’re following your lead toward something larger than each and all of you. Congratulations! By tapping the source of authentic leadership, you’ve entered the larger world of the Servant-Leader.

Step 5. Never, ever play favorites. Everyone has value, whether you like them personally or not. Treat everyone with respect and, as you support them, they’ll all work hard with you, each in their own wonderfully different way, to help you achieve your organization’s goals. (Remember that, on the other hand, you cheapen the work you’re trying to inspire when you treat it like a win-lose game. You may think you’re being clever, but you undermine your own leadership in the long run when you “play” people for short-term gain.)

Step 6. Full- or part-time employee, contractor, consultant, whatever --everybody’s somebody. Be prepared to recognize everyone for the value of their contributions, regardless of what’s printed on their business cards.

Step 7. Every organization needs its “operators,” the go-to-guys, the t-crossing and i-dotting detail-oriented folks who devise and follow effective processes. But beware the hidden trap of settling for the merely routine and declaring it “excellence.” Excellence is something more.

Which prompts the most important of questions for any organization or society: what is Excellence?

Einstein Finally Redeemeddancesteps

Is dancing purely a matter of process? Does clear and precise choreography determine the quality of a dance performance? Does putting your feet exactly where and when you’re told make you a dancer? Will carefully following a really precise floor chart make you an excellent dancer?

Dancing, especially good dancing, transcends choreography. Excellent dancers exceed the specifications of choreography. They amaze an audience, and pleasantly surprise their choreographer, as they freely capture and ride the spirit of a performance.

Likewise, in all the work we humans do, how can excellence possibly emerge from simply following a process? Can a really good paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa elevate anyone to the level of a DaVinci?

Following process and meeting expectations is adequacy, and adequacy is virtuous. Adequacy has its place.

But excellence is more. Excellence is the miracle of exceeding expectations. Perhaps because we fear failing to repeat it, we sometimes tend to mistrust excellence. So, we shy away from it, perhaps most often by withholding, from ourselves and others, the freedom on which excellence feeds, which it needs to survive.

Here’s where old Albert, after nearly a lifetime of saying his share of dumb things, got one absolutely right (Out Of My Later Years, 1950):

“Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”


  1. That was a bracing essay, friend. So, Einstein's wrong, I'm wrong, I'm a genius (QED.)

  2. Bingo, Doug! You've still got it.