What the Nobel Prizes Teach Us

STOCKHOLM: Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2010.

The practicalities of running a business might seem worlds away from a black tie ceremony in Stockholm. But the top performers in any endeavor can teach us about success in all endeavors, and science is no exception. In science as in Aftermarket Service and Reverse Logistics, goals can be stifling, and curiosity can be the driving force for progress.

Why take cues from science? Simple: to do good science is to be a good manager, businessman, and collaborator. And business can’t thrive without an empirical foundation. Business may sound like the land of goals and agendas, and science the land of curiosity and tinkering. But scientists have to write proposals and give performance reports like anyone else, and the burden is on business professionals to say how they’ve gained an intellectual edge over the competition. Amid smart and driven competitors, the sheer desire to increase profits doesn’t cut it.

Even if you buy the comparison, you may not agree that curiosity is “the driving force” behind science and business. But many Nobel laureates would. Two of them, Steven Chu and Thomas Cech, just wrote an op-ed on the importance of federal research funding for basic science. Neither they nor many of their fellow honorees had lofty expectations for their prize-winning work. Many had those expectations for other projects that never bore fruit. All shared a readiness to pursue what looked interesting, despite their early instincts about what was important, and in the process stumbled on research programs that made them famous. Success in the Aftermarket Service and Logistics industry is little different. Game-changing insights rarely come from the search for game-changing insights. More often, they come from a desire to understand how the industry really works, and why.

Curiosity may not kill the cat, but can that really mean that goals are toxic? Who ever succeeded at anything without the desire to have an impact?

No one can object to broad aspirations; it’s when goals get specific that “tunnel vision” can form. For every success story based on curiosity and serendipity, there are countless forgotten efforts based on a rigid objective. The “funny stories” behind the discovery of DNA, the invention of antibiotics, and countless other modern breakthroughs stand in stark contrast to the “agenda driven” science that used to be the norm. For almost four millennia, alchemists struggled to turn lead into gold, and to brew drinks that could abolish aging. Given infinite time, they might have succeeded. But given only the better part of human history, millions of lively minds made essentially zero progress toward their all-consuming goals.

Without a willingness to change the subject, a healthy respect for theory and argument, and an interest in why old efforts failed, almost no problem is tractable. How many businesses have gone belly-up, despite their stated goal of dominating the industry? And how many pulled ahead because of their genuine interest in how the industry works? Idea-driven management may well be “how to succeed in business without really trying.”

Granted, “pulling ahead” is a tough objective, no matter how great the idea.  Those who succeed often have much more than just a good idea.  They have precise plans, blueprints and maps to help them get to where they need to go.  Still struggling with how you are going to pull ahead and achieve breakthrough results?  Try looking below the surface of the Aftermarket & Reverse Logistics Industry, and learn how things really work.  Schedule your strategy session today to see this wisdom in practice.


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