History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme

I can’t believe I forgot to mention this quote in my earlier post on history quotes. It has been long attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Unfortunately, its first appearance appears to be the one that established it as a Twain quote. It’s a misattribution.

What did Henry Ford mean by “History Is Bunk?”

Last week I listened to Milt Rosenberg‘s interview with Gary Saul Morson about the value of what they called “Encapsulated Wisdom”: the “aphorisms, maxims and wise saws [that] are the stuff of conversation and argument.” What grabbed my attention was the discussion of two contrasting views of history: Henry Ford vs. George Santayana. Rosenberg suggested that if:

Santayana ( “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”) is true or false then Henry Ford (“history is bunk”) is correspondingly false or true.

As as history guy, I’m with Santayana. However, Morson’s take was unique, at least to my ears: he maintained that both had truth in them. He pointed out that Ford would look at history with the perspective of an engineer or a “hard” scientist. He would discount the so-called wisdom of the past given its uselessness during an age of scientific progress. A quick dive into Ford’s many other proclamations regarding history and science bear that out (though he wasn’t even too clear on the history of his own field).

One irony: Ford’s attitude that the world could be made new was shared by his bitterest enemies, the socialists and progressive reformers. Even today, the Industrial Workers of the World believe that:

[W]e are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

The Allure of Doomsaying

I just finished this Grantland piece by Bryan Curtis on the imminent demise of baseball. If you’re a fan at all — or a fan of any long-standing pastime — you’ve probably read or heard complaints like this:

Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well. … But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to. … It appears to me that ball matches have come to be controlled by different parties and for different purposes …

The kicker is that this quote is from 1868, eight years before the founding of the National League. It turns out that there’s a long thread of end-times commentary stretching back to the beginning of the Major Leagues, and Curtis unspools it carefully and well.

These persistent predictions hint at one of the reasons that doomsayers will never want for work: all human institutions, no matter how long-lived, will wax and wane. Predicting an institution’s demise, as Curtis describes it:

…allows us to imagine we’re present at a turning point in history. We’re the lucky coroners who get to toe-tag the game of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Kurt Bevacqua.

“We are not at a historic moment,” Thorn said. “The popularity of anything will be cyclical. There will be ups and downs. If you want to measure a current moment against a peak, you will perceive a decline. J.P. Morgan was asked, ‘What will the stock market do this year?’ His answer was: ‘Fluctuate.’”

One driver that Curtis doesn’t mention is the control that failure gives us. There’s a certain temperament — and I plead guilty — that is very comfortable with the dodge Richard Feynman mocks here:

All the time you’re saying to yourself, ‘I could do that, but I won’t,’–which is just another way of saying that you can’t.

Making a positive forecast about, in this case, baseball, would put us in the uncomfortable position of predicting success for something we can’t control. It is hard to create and achieve success in this world and nothing lasts forever. The sure bet is on the “can’t” in Henry Ford’s “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.

As everyone say, please read the whole thing.

The Apple 8.0.1 Debacle: Whom to blame?

Marc Andreessen drew my attention to a Bloomberg article that laid out what it purported to be “links” with the failed Maps launch. @pmarca was properly skeptical of the article:

And indeed, the piece starts in on the leader of the quality assurance effort, noting that:

The same person at Apple was in charge of catching problems before both products were released. Josh Williams, the mid-level manager overseeing quality assurance for Apple’s iOS mobile-software group, was also in charge of quality control for maps, according to people familiar with Apple’s management structure.

If you didn’t read any further, you’d think the problem was solved. Some guy wasn’t doing his job. Case closed.

But are quality problems ever so simple? After all, Isn’t quality supposed to be built into a product? If this guy was the problem, then why was Apple leaning so heavily on him to lead its bug-finding QA group?

Well, reading on is rewarding, for it becomes clear that the quality problems at Apple run deeper than a bad QA leader. For example, turf wars and secrecy within Apple make it so:

Another challenge is that the engineers who test the newest software versions often don’t get their hands on the latest iPhones until the same time that they arrive with customers, resulting in updates that may not get tested as much on the latest handsets. Cook has clamped down on the use of unreleased iPhones and only senior managers are allowed access to the products without special permission, two people said.

Even worse, integration testing is not routinely done before an OS feature gets to QA:

Teams responsible for testing cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity will sometimes sign off on a product release, then Williams’ team will discover later that it’s not compatible with another feature, the person said.

So all you Apple fans, just remember the joke we used to make late in a project: “What’s another name for the release milestone? User Acceptance Testing begins!”

Project’s End: The Career Progress Dilemma

In more than one project, there’s been lots of happy talk about people’s future roles in the organization. Yet everyone knew that some colleagues simply wouldn’t have a place after the project, including themselves.

Beyond the formal career path discussions — if such things exist in your firm — I suggest that one should be very clear about the fact that this is a project. It’s incumbent on the project team to think about “what’s next?”. My experience is that while project may not lead to something within one’s own company, what it can lead to may be even better. As long as firms are clear about this potential trade-off, they’ll be able to recruit a better mix of colleagues to the project team.

To that end, I was struck by the Alliance approach suggested by two principals of LinkedIn itself: Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. Follow this link to an Econ Talk podcast and further information. A longish quote (Ben, I believe) from the podcast transcript will give you flavor of their argument:

[A]ctually I think one of the themes we are navigating here in The Alliance is both trying to get employees to sign up for an inspiring company mission. At the same time, you the company are trying to understand what that employee’s personal mission or vision is in their own life. And trying to define it toward the view that it’s both of those missions at once. Right? So it’s no longer: Subsume yourself toward corporate mission–rather than: Hey, maybe your long-term vision is you want to start your own company someday. Or you are really interested in some other field in addition to this field. So you are going to sign up for a tour because you care about our mission, sure. You really care about your mission. And we’re going to make sure that this tour of duty helps you get closer to being able to fulfill that mission. But it’s that recognition of the fact that there may be some difference. And that you are only looking for sufficient alignment, for a specific tour of duty.

Adapted from a LinkedIn comment regarding this post by Don McAlister.

The Incentive/Behavior Nexus

Steve Kerr uses a General Motors cautionary tale to show us that it isn’t enough to have incentives that appear to reward desired behavior. In this HBR blog post, he notes that:

Although managers’ bonuses are based partly on vehicle-quality improvements, and safety is supposed to be paramount, cost is “everything” at GM, and the company’s atmosphere probably discouraged individuals from raising safety concerns. Earlier this summer, a former GM manager described a workplace in which the mention of any problems was unacceptable.

Kerr’s critical insight is that while GM could point to formal quality incentives, these incentives didn’t have the required impact on its managers’ behavior. The money quote for me is this:

In order to properly align its incentives to support its mission and objectives, a company must determine what managers and employees believe they are being encouraged to do and not do.

Doubts about BYOD promotion schemes

[The proposal of a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) communications campaign] strikes me as a bit too “happy/clappy” about promoting BYOD adoption. Explaining the process won’t address deep-seated privacy concerns like Peter Nolan’s. If done the wrong way, such promotions smack of the old IT “if we explain it to you lunkheads one more time it will sink in” mentality.

I started as a BYOD advocate and I’m OK with it for myself, at least for certain devices (e.g.,work email on a personal tablet). However, if we in IT want to control devices, we should expect that some won’t want to hand over their personal property. Therefore, if we want to control them, we should be prepared to provision them.

Also, I’m just not sure that BYOD is a great lever for preventing shadow IT. My suggestion would be to start with a more open IT portfolio process, which would ensure that everyone buys into what’s proposed, being executed, and how approvals and controls work.

Adapted from a LinkedIn comment on this post re: shadow IT and trust as a strategy to prevent it.

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