Four Quotes on the Thin Line of Progress

October 2003 Corporate

Challenging conflicts exist between the desire to institutionalize past accomplishments and the need to create of new ones. While it remains appealing to establish administrations, solidify relationships, and smooth the pathway for reproducing that which has been initiated, our nature pushes us to break with the past, chart our own course, and create new ideas that will alter the status quo. In business situations, these natural tendencies to break with the past are coupled with uncertainties over future profitability.

History records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat.
– Jean Henri Fabre

Perhaps it is the actor’s personality that determines whether the past is institutionalized or further progress is made. Risk averse and cost conscious actors working within large institutions are driven to construct structures that solidify past progress. Change agents however are driven to establish new paradigms with their institution. The position of individual chain agents within large institutions is usually tenuous because of the strife their change creates within the institution. Individual change agents that initiate progress may be inappropriate for the company as the company grows and matures. As these change agents move on to new areas, they often leave much of the value they created behind and fail to achieve the full potential rewards.

Success has many fathers while failure remains a bastard child.
– Unknown

Progress is highly non-linear and sometimes non-existent. Onlookers may have trouble identifying it and, justifiably, may discount that progress is being made. It often looks more like hodgepodge of confusion or activities without tangible results. And unfortunately, as companies prioritize investments over creating new value for customers versus protecting and caring for themselves, progress is halted altogether.

Referring to historical events, each of us takes pride in the blossoming of knowledge associated with the Renaissance but find many to blame for the fall of Rome. After Rome fell, incomes fell one-hundred fold and much knowledge was lost. For instance, the concept of zero and negative numbers, introduced to the collective human knowledge by ancients of Mesopotamia and India, became non-existent in Europe until the rebirth of knowledge in the Renaissance. If it weren’t for northern Africa and Islamic culture, might have lost this knowledge altogether during the European Dark Ages.

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.
– Isaac Newton

Progress has occurred in isolation but is more often made through the tension created when one idea collides with another. Without conflicts of thoughts and desires, the need to ask questions and thrust new concepts forward is too small to justify the energy required to make progress. Perhaps it is this tension itself that drives change agents out of bureaucratic organizations which seek smooth flowing operations. These change agents often find themselves in risky positions where their freedom to create is less hindered.

Rank does not confer privileges; it entails responsibilities.
– Peter Drucker

Despite the many challenges to progress, it can and must be made. Changes in thought processes, introductions of new ideas, and the subsequent creation of profits from these ideas are only created through this thing we call progress.

Perhaps ideas such as these led one business philosopher to believe that a company has only two sources of value, R&D and Sales and Marketing while all other areas are just costs. For people in these roles, their responsibility for making progress is not only to their company, but to society itself.

About the author

Tim J. Smith, PhD is the Managing Principal of Wiglaf Pricing, and an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University of Marketing and Economics. His most recent book is Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures.

Tim J. Smith, PhD
More by Tim J. Smith, PhD