Sliced breadThis week is the anniversary of the first patent for a practical rapid-firing machine gun – the Gatling gun. The Gatling gun represented a major advance in firepower on the battlefield – what used to take a battalion to deliver could now be delivered by just a couple of men. It was progress – in firepower, but not necessarily for humanity.

In the western world, we have a long history in the belief in progress. Except for the so-called Dark Ages, western civilization has managed to progress in fits and starts that has resulted in a world where the major concerns would be considered silly to our ancestors of 200-400 years ago. We don’t even think like our ancestors did – worry about housing for the poor? What for? They can find whatever tree or cave or poor house is available! Ebenezer was a real person.

Now none of this means that we’ve reached the pinnacle of perfection or that we shouldn’t be interested in making more progress. What it does mean is that we can learn how progress is made – and it’s usually not how we are taught in high school. I particularly enjoy James Burke’s Connections – it shows the randomness of progress and the role that serendipity plays.

For example, let’s say a new discovery is made in the laboratory – anti-gravity. We all will be having flying cars next year – right? (Meredith was promised she’d have a flying car by the time she was 30 when she was a teenager. Hasn’t happened yet.) No, because it’s almost a law written in granite that the time from discovery to the first practical invention is approximately 20 years. Sliced bread? The first working prototype was in 1912 and it wasn’t until 1928 that anyone was using it to produce sliced bread on a commercial scale.

There are two reasons for the time lag – lack of experience and resistance.

Whenever you have a completely new product, service, or thought – people will not knew what to do with. In fact, they will insist on using it in conventional or traditional fashion – because that’s all they know. When personal computers became available at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, no one knew what to do with them until I used one to manage an entire submarine availability and typed my own reports – horrors! But within three months everyone was using personal computers because they could now see how to use them.

The second reason is resistance – there’s always someone who stands to lose because of progress. Whether it is power, money or prestige, no one wants to give up what they have. Unfortunately, progress is cruel – once people see the advantage they insist on using it for their benefit. So while resistance will always exist, in many ways it’s doomed because of people’s desire to work less for more gain.

Notice how it’s not what you think – but what others think that determines the adoption of something new. You have to influence how others think about the new idea in order to make progress. And it’s likely to take 20 years before it’s accepted.

Progress – it’s not what you think.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.