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Ciciora’s Corner: Walt’s Laws on Ideas

Tue, 12/03/2013 - 7:00pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

I receive a magazine called “The Bent of Tau Beta Pi”. Tau Beta Pi is an engineering society that exists at engineering schools and strives to raise money for scholarships and to promote engineering education. A “bent” is a wooden structure of heavy timbers that supports a railroad over a gorge. The bent silently bears the load, just as engineers and technicians do in many present day organizations.

For many years, the magazine had a column titled “Lyle’s Laws” which carried interesting musing about the way things work from an engineering perspective. The column no longer exists because the author has retired. Fortunately, Lyle wrote a book based on his columns titled: “Lyle’s Laws, Reflections on Ethics, Engineering, and Everything Else” by Lyle D Feisel. I would recommend that book. It is an interesting read and has food for thought.

These “laws” are not legal nor are they fundamental principles of physics like the speed of light. They are observations of the way things work, more like Moore’s Law.

Gordon Moore of Intel observed that every eighteen to twenty four months, the number of digital transistors on an integrated circuit doubles for a given cost. That’s a general trend that has held up for decades. Sometimes it takes a little longer and sometimes a little less time, but generally, this relationship has held. It’s that kind of law.

I think we all have made observations about how things work, both technically and the way people behave. I’ve sometimes made such pronouncements that my daughter refers to as “dadisms”. Most of these are not original, just adopted from observations others have made. But maybe there’s an original buried in the pile somewhere.

For quite some time, I’ve made observations on ideas and how they occur and how they work.

My “First Law” is: The most important attribute of an idea is whose it is.

You may have noticed this in action. When the boss or the big dog makes a pronouncement, no matter how dumb or off it is, it will get attention.

I once heard a boss referred to as “leaves”. He went beyond “not being able to see the forest for the trees.” He couldn’t even see the trees for the leaves! But as the boss, his ideas had to be explored and even implemented. Most failed, but that was expected. He was involved in the early days of the organization and, as such, gained a position from which no one was able to dislodge him. This remained the case as long as the organization continued to grow rapidly. When growth plateaued, he was given other responsibilities and then quietly disappeared.

A major consequence of the First Law is that management is limited by its own (lack of?) brilliance. Decades ago, a few companies back, the CEO of the company I worked for was truly brilliant. And he knew it. His conviction of his own brilliance meant that he didn’t feel he needed any advice.

This greatly limited the information at his disposal and upon which he made his decisions. The company no longer exists.

My “Second Law” is: It is impossible to tell until much later if the idea is a stroke of genius or the misfire of an idiot.

Years later, all will look back and claim they always knew the idea was brilliant (or stupid as the case may be). Yet most often they were timid in support or opposition at the time the idea was put forth, unless the idea came from the boss. Then it got support. If it fizzled, later it will be ignored if the boss is still around or, if the boss is gone, it will be remembered as one of his many failings.

My “Third Law” is: Ideas come at their own pace and they can’t be forced.

The harder you try to get a new idea, the less likely it will arrive. It seems the best approach is to take your mind off the need for the idea. Sometimes something physical like going for a walk, clearing up the desk, washing the car (even cleaning horse stalls) or some other activity puts the brain in the mode of letting things percolate in the background. Then the idea pops.

Alternatively, a night’s sleep or even an afternoon nap yields results.

My last thought is more of a corollary to the Second Law. If you don’t implement the idea, you will only know if that was a waste of an opportunity or a blessed save from an embarrassing error by seeing if someone else won praise or scorn from the same idea.

Then you will say to yourself, “why didn’t I do that” or “thank my lucky stars I didn’t screw up like that.”

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