The Goldilocks principle

Jun 14 2005 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Why did the progress of the Chinese people stall in the 15th Century? One explanation, from "Guns, Germs and Steel" a great book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jared Diamond, is that in China, unified power meant that permission to improve was given or withdrawn by just one decision-making body, the imperial court.

Despite leading the world in technological innovation, China's gradual adoption of isolationism saw shipyards that had once built ocean-going fleets abandoned with no possibility of a policy reversal. Once the emperor's permission was denied, the possibility of improvement died.

In Europe, meanwhile, competition, fragmentation, diversity, and disunity allowed ideas that were rejected in one country to be adopted in another. Innovators were able to keep pitching their ideas until they found sponsors or benefactors.

Famously, Columbus approached five European monarchs before finding one willing to support his proposed voyage to bring unimagined wealth to the continent.

Diamond argues that progress requires some degree of separation but not too much. Not too much - because if all work is done in isolation ideas are not shared and progress is slowed. Not too little - because if all work is done together, ideas become stale and monotonous.

This "goldilocks" theory - the importance of both connection and disunity - turns out to be pretty valuable. First, because it explains why some countries have dominated others thanks to the benefits of their environment. Second, because it offers an insight into why some organisations produce more than others with the same raw people component.

The idea of connectedness is basically that the more connected people are both to each other and to information - the more likely it is that there will be an increase in the rate of innovation and value-added production.

But even in today's electronic world, it is also about physical connectivity. For many areas of Africa, for example, poor physical infrastructure makes it more expensive to transport products from one country to another than to transport them via African ports to other continents.

Connectivity only releases human potential to the extent that it is accompanied by freedom, independence, and disunity

But connectivity only releases human potential to the extent that it is accompanied by freedom, independence, and disunity. If everyone in the organisation is 'pulling in the same direction' and 'singing from the same hymn sheet' and 'drinking the same Kool-Aid', there is little possibility of innovation because innovation requires a departure from sameness.

In other words, innovation is difference.

Valuable innovation is usually the product of discord and disagreement. "Stop", cries the innovator, "You're going the wrong way", or, "I've found a better way".

Someone has to be unreasonable. Someone has to depart from conventional wisdom however convenient and comforting it is - and they have to do it even if they turn out to be mistaken.

Of course, innovators tend not popular with those who stand to lose if the innovator succeeds particularly those who have most to lose because they are already successful, established and therefore powerful.

Innovators are also unappreciated because they have not yet been proved correct. As a society, we tend to praise innovators whose ideas have already demonstrated their value rather than support those who are still trying and failing and trying and failing.

Within many organisations, too, there exists the same fight between stability and progress. There are those who want their experience respected and their fiefdoms kept secure. There are others attracted to discontinuity because they either want things to be different so they can get ahead or they simply like to see things done better.

But these improvers who have an emotional need to see just how well a thing can be accomplished - are vital to the progress of organisations and to the world.

Take one example of this. Andy Grove, former CEO and Chairman of microchip giant Intel, was devoted to the idea of scientific debate. In the technical domain, he believed that the best idea should win and the argument should be robust.

He called this approach "constructive confrontation" and it enabled Intel to keep up with Moore's law (which roughly says that the number of transistors on a chip will double every couple of years). But he was far less willing to embrace ideas that question his business direction - and has missed opportunities as a result.

As Harvard Business School's Professor Chris Argyris put it, Grove will "send mixed messages about effective leadership, act as if they are not mixed, make these features undiscussable, and make the undiscussability undiscussable."

As a result of this style of leadership Grove's senior team were forced to develop a set of rules for dealing with him. For example:
"(1) sense his mood
(2) remember that once he has made up his mind it is difficult to change it and that if he does change his mind he will not acknowledge it
(3) remember that he is unaware of his actions or if he is made aware of his actions, he will likely blame others for causing his actions
(4) craft your conversations with him according to these rules without letting him know that you are using the rules."

Imagine the wasted time, energy, and commitment spent talking around one powerful man's inconsistencies and ego!

Some would argue that this kind of waste may be unavoidable because it is difficult to know ahead of time which way of is best. According to this line of thinking, the only option is to let it all go and see what happens.

But in my opinion, it is more likely that the importance of failure, freedom, and connectivity can be understood well enough to create new types of organisation that are better than the old ones.

Culture and human relationships can be improved - albeit more slowly than physical technology. Our trial-and-error approach can be informed by history and experience to help us avoid making unnecessarily wasteful mistakes. And we can get to a point where we better use the Goldilocks principle to get the balance right between unity and disunity.

more articles

About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Very useful article. I have worked for managers at both extremes. One let us have freedom by default because he didn't seem to know where we were going. It seemed to create an atmosphere of petty indifference to the overall goals. We were aimless, I guess, rather than free. Another had to know and decide everything which meant that I (I know it's bad!) spent time just trying to get one up on him.. :) It's a hard balance but I don't think that either of our managers had even considered that it was important or how to accomplish it. I'll have to pass the goldilocks principle on to some of the bears in my working life!

Scott Wilson Boston