An aspiring author reached out to me to discuss his book in progress, which he called “Scientific Management.” He believed every business problem could be solved using mathematic and scientific principles. You can build an operation like a machine and make it run with perfect predictability.
It didn’t take me long to poke holes in his engineering perfection theory. Our conversation (which he has given me permission to share) went something like this:
“Have you heard of the 3-body problem?” I asked. He said no, so I summarized it for him.
“The challenge is to find a mathematical solution to perfectly predict the future positions of three bodies in the same gravitational field – say an asteroid, the moon, and the Earth – if you know their starting position, mass, and velocity. They really wanted the answer for N bodies, but knew that if they could solve it for three bodies they could solve it for N bodies. Smart people tried for over 300 years to find the solution, but it turns out to be mathematically impossible. It’s a chaotic system.”
For the math geeks, here are three differential equations required that cannot be solved simultaneously:
“NASA uses iterative approximations to do the calculations. They can get really close, good enough for practical uses, but never precise. There is no closed solution.”
My aspiring author friend seemed to know where this was going. I continued.
“Let me ask, if three non-living objects in the same gravitational field, interacting with one another, are not perfectly predictable, what do you think happens when you have three human beings interacting in the same environment, each with free will to make decisions? Are you going to be able to control or perfectly predict the outcomes? How many non-solvable differential equations will describe that situation?”
We talked about the useful ways that you can reduce decision-impacts and variation (e.g., checklists, procedure documentation, automation). But none of these are pure science and math solutions.
I admire the guy’s moxie and ambition. It reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s effort to create a complete system of mathematics to explain everything before the crushing weight of Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems demonstrated it was logically impossible.
We could have scientific management if we were not humbled by the reality of the 3-body problem, quantum mechanics, and especially the fact that people are extremely unpredictable.
Leadership is required when people and humbling circumstances abound. There are good management principles – how to run projects, how to manage processes – and there are proven practices in supervising people (delegation, feedback, communication, training). You should study and master them all, but never think they are a complete substitute for leadership.
You can manage things but need to lead people. This truth is built into the fabric of the universe.