It’s a modern arrogance to assume that the ancients were idiots because they believed the world was flat, witches could cause your cow to go dry, frogs caused warts to appear, or other beliefs we know to be false.  But they weren’t – they just started with less than we have and had to CREATE everything.  This is brilliantly illustrated by Thomas Thwaites in his TED talk “How I built a toaster — from scratch.”

This thought reminds me of when I was a program manager at DARPA in the Submarine Technology Program in the early 1990’s.  Because I had a lot of money to farm out for new submarine technology I was constantly receiving requests to meet with new companies that had the answer to my problems.  All but a few would end up being the CEO (and sole employee) of the company and a retired flag officer, usually an admiral.  The conversation would go like this:

The CEO: “Hello, I’m Dr. XXXXXXXXXXX, CEO and this is Admiral YYYYYYYYYY.

Me: “Oh, Really!  My Ph.D. is in physics, what’s yours?”

(Watch them mentally go, “Oh, shit!  I’m going to have to talk real technology!”)

Presentation would be given, then….

Me:  “That’s interesting.  Let’s check it against my ‘02 submarine.”

The CEO:  “The 2002 submarine?”

Me:  “No, the 1902 submarine, SS 2, built by the Holland Electric Boat Co.”

I would then explain where their idea was incorporated in the design of the SS 2.  It’s not hard to do because generally the original creator was a genius – And Holland was definitely a genius when you consider the number of problems that he had to overcome to build the first real submarine.  He came up with some truly remarkable solutions.  We could only come up with comparatively minor improvements.

As much as our world appears to be changing, most of the change is simply small incremental “improvements” – but our marketing culture always announces each as a giant leap forward – but really, what’s the difference in the first iPhone and the latest iPhone – more memory, faster processor, smaller (or larger) screen?

If we understand the nature of these changes, we then can understand how they will affect us and our organizations.  Because the type of change has already been experienced to one degree or the other.  James Burke based his series, The Day the Universe Changed, on this very idea.  Faster communications?  What was the effect of the telegraph?  Likely, it was more revolutionary than the telephone because the telephone only added voice – the electricity flowed at the same speed for both.

Avoiding the hype is important because the hype isn’t real – it’s how people will use the new technology, policy, or beliefs.  Otherwise, all we are doing is the same stuff only more efficiently.

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.