The Shelf Life of Expertise. Drucker Misquotes

An ongoing series where I share a “Business Playlist” of articles that made me think in the hope that you find them valuable also.

This week: Morgan Housel on the decreasing shelf life of domain expertise. Peter Drucker misquotes. 

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Experts From A World That No Longer Exists

The German physicist Max Planck is often quoted as saying that, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

This is a misquote. Planck’s actual quote was, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

This article from Morgan Housel expresses a similar sentiment to Planck. He states, “The biggest risk to an evolving system is that you become bogged down by experts from a world that no longer exists. The more evolution you have, the more you should expect that expertise has a shelf life.”

Morgan shares a great story of how Henry Ford encouraged his workers to experiment to make the vehicle production line more efficient. But Ford had an important rule: people could not keep a record of experiments that failed. 

According to Ford, “If you keep on recording all of your failures you will shortly have a list showing that there is nothing left for you to try – whereas it by no means follows because one man has failed in a certain method that another man will not succeed.”  

“Hardly a week passes without some improvement being made somewhere in machine or process, and sometimes this is made in defiance of what is called ‘the best shop practice’.”

Sometimes a great idea fails because it is ahead of its time. Then the ecosystem evolves (or entrenched interests die!) and the idea becomes successful. 

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark Andreessen explains how this worked in tech: “All of the ideas that people had in the 1990s were basically all correct. They were just early.” 

The infrastructure necessary to make most tech businesses work didn’t exist in the 1990s. But it does exist today. So almost every business plan that was mocked for being a ridiculous idea that failed is now, 20 years later, a viable industry.

According to Morgan, “Not a day goes by that I don’t become more confident that the secret to business and investing is identifying the few things that never change and hold onto them for dear life, and identifying what evolves and be ready to adapt those views quickly. 

It’s just so hard to do the latter.”

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Did Peter Drucker say that?

In a previous business playlist, I referenced the misquotes of W. Edwards Deming.

His fellow luminary, Peter Drucker, is probably the most quoted business thought leader of all time. He’s also the most misquoted. The Drucker institute even has a “Drucker misquotation quiz”.

Early in my management career, I’m ashamed to say that I accepted many of the following Drucker (mis)quotes as gospel. Having been burned a few times I’m much more sceptical these days. As my friend and writing coach Wally Bock taught me, “Always check and verify.”

Drucker never said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

What he actually said: “Culture – no matter how defined – is singularly persistent.”

Drucker never said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

What he actually said: “No human being can possibly predict the future, let alone control it.”

Drucker never said: “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results, not attributes.”

What he actually said: “Effective leadership – and again this is very old wisdom­­ – is not based on being clever; it is based primarily on being consistent.”

Drucker never said: “What gets measured, gets managed.”

What he actually said: “Unless we determine what shall be measured and what the yardstick of measurement in an area will be, the area itself will not be seen.”

Drucker never said: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

What he actually said: “Efficiency is concerned with doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.”

Drucker never said: “So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”

What he actually said: “Management by objectives works if you know the objectives. Ninety percent of the time you don’t.”

Drucker never said: “Knowledge has to be improved, challenged and increased constantly, or it vanishes.”

What he actually said: “Knowledge is different from all other resources. It makes itself constantly obsolete, so that today’s advanced knowledge is tomorrow’s ignorance. And the knowledge that matters is subject to rapid and abrupt shifts.”

This last Drucker quote ties in nicely with Morgan Housel’s article above. It serves as a warning to me. The ideas I espouse as being “correct” today, might well be considered the height of ignorance tomorrow.  

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Until next time…
Stephen