“Science progresses one funeral at a time”. — Max Planck
The Musicians of the Titanic: A Tale of Unnecessary Bravery
On that fatal night in April 1912, the musicians of the Titanic played heroically, even as the ship was sinking. Their bravery was legendary, but it should never have reached that point. The musicians should never have perished. The ship should never have sunk. Overconfidence, and poor decisions by senior leaders played a significant role in the sinking of the ship. The sad tale is an embodiment of a fatal, dedication to the old ways even when faced with disaster.
Many organisations are sinking ships. Like the Titanic Orchestra, many executives stay devoted to their roles, steadfastly performing even as their ships sink. In many cases, they know it. Senior leaders, akin to the captains of their ships, are unable to (or refuse to) change course even when headed for metaphorical icebergs. Their old ways keep them locked in a sinking ship, even as the water rises.
The Titanic tragedy bore the indelible marks of hubris, overconfidence, and deplorable decision-making. Despite receiving many iceberg warnings from other vessels via wireless telegraphy, the Titanic, driven by a relentless pursuit of a speed record (target fixation), arrogantly persisted on its predetermined course. Limited visibility, owing to a calm sea and the absence of moonlight, should have prompted cautious measures, yet the crew, ensnared by overconfidence, neglected to reduce speed or supplement lookouts (they didn’t even have binoculars). The wireless operators, entrapped in a complacency that prioritised passenger messages over impending peril, underscored the depth of poor decision-making. This ill-fated confluence of hubris, overconfidence, and misguided choices culminated in one of history’s most calamitous maritime disasters, accentuating the imperative for humility and prudence in the face of nature’s unpredictability.
The battles we meet when it comes to change management are mostly mental, not physical. To transform people’s behaviour, we must transform their mindset. If they remain resistant to change, they must eventually be changed. In the context of this week’s Thursday Thought, they must “Walk the Planck.”
Walking the Planck
“This is how it is with every paradigm shift. It happens because little by little, drip by drip, new evidence keeps coming in that can’t be explained by the existing paradigm. And at a certain point, it becomes clinically insane to go on defending the existing paradigm.” — Graham Hancock
Walking the plank was a method of execution used by pirates. Pirates allegedly bound their victims so they could not swim or tread water. The pirates then forced prisoners or traitors to walk off a wooden plank extended over the side of the ship.
Thomas Kuhn, perhaps the most important figure in the philosophy of science, argued that our avoidance of the unknown is the principal obstacle to human progress. Kuhn remarked that “new ideas, however well proven and evident, are implemented only when the generations who consider them new die and are replaced by generations who consider the ideas accepted and old.”
The Planck Principle, named after the eminent German physicist Max Planck, sheds further light on this concept. Planck held that scientific change does not occur because individual scientists change their minds, but rather because successive generations of scientists have different views.
“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 … An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarised with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.” — Max Planck, Scientific autobiography, 1950, p. 33
Colloquially it means, “Science progresses one funeral at a time”.
Does Science “progress one funeral at a time”?
“Change will come slowly, across generations, because old beliefs die hard even when demonstrably false.” — E. O. Wilson
Pierre Azoulay , Christian Fons-Rosen , and Joshua Graff Zivin explored if Science truly does “progress one funeral at a time”, and it turns out that it does. The research explores the impact of the untimely death of a renowned life scientist on the scientific literature. The findings show a decline in the number of papers published by collaborators of the distinguished scientist in the life sciences following their death. Conversely, there is an increase in the publication of studies by researchers who did not collaborate with the prominent figure.
In business, this translates into the idea that sometimes, those at the helm of an organisation can be the most significant obstacle to change. Aged and bureaucratic organisations often lose both their flexibility and become rigid and unresponsive. Revitalising such organisations is a difficult task.
When it comes to change management, there’s an underlying principle that’s as profound as it is simple: sometimes, to bring about change, you need to change the management. It’s not always about rearranging the deck chairs; it is not about playing as the ship sinks, sometimes, it’s about changing the captain.
Thanks for Reading
This week’s article is inspired by my conversations with Kaihan Krippendorff in the latest of his appearances on The Innovation Show.
Find that episode here:
Walking The Planck: Rearrange Deckchairs or Change Captains? was originally published in The Thursday Thought on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.