Stories that Omit Key Details

Source:  The Creativity Post, Nov 2016

The appeal of parables is that they reveal a simple truth without having to explain facts and that is also why they are so dangerous. The world is not such a simple place, which is why parables so often lead us astray. As Alfred North Whitehead put it, seek simplicity, but distrust it.

Blockbuster Video

Blockbuster Video is a cautionary tale, but not for the reason most people think it is. As the story is usually told, the executives at the now defunct video rental giant ignored the threat coming from Netflix until it was too late. Their futile efforts to meet the challenge came too late and the company went bankrupt in 2010.

The real story is decidedly different. In fact, Blockbuster CEO John Antioco recognized the threat and began to make serious changes as early as 2004. Soon, its Total Access program was gaining ground against Netflix. Alas, both investors and franchisees balked at the cost of the changes, Antioco was fired and the strategy was abandoned.

IBM

Thomas J. Watson, the iconic CEO of IBM, is often pilloried for observing in 1943 that “there is a world market for maybe five computers.” It’s a remark so foolish that PC World ranked it #1 on its list of the 7 worst tech predictions of all time. The magazine implies that he failed to see the future because he didn’t imagine that computers would move beyond vacuum tubes.

It is a puzzling comment to be sure. What makes the observation even more curious was that he was supposed to have made it in 1943, three years before the first digital computer was introduced in 1946. How could Watson predict a market for five computers when none yet existed? To envision a market of any size would have been strange at the time.

Other facts make the comment seem out of character as well. Watson took a major risk  when he established IBM Research in the depths of the Great Depression to ensure that his firm would be on the forefront of computing technology. He also went to the trouble to hire the legendary John von Neumann to help develop digital computing in the 50’s. IBM then went on to dominate the technology for decades.

The truth, as Kevin Maney points out in his definitive biography of Watson, is that he never said it. The source of the confusion is probably a comment that Watson made to his board in 1953 about a sales trip he took for one of IBM’s early computers, the 701. “As a result of our trip,” he said “on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.”

Penicillin

Fleming was a brilliant, but sometimes careless biologist who returned from his summer vacation in 1928 and found that the bacteria cultures he had been growing weren contaminated by a mold that was eradicating the colonies. He decided to study the mold and… Eureka! he discovered penicillin.

Yet penicillin didn’t become commercially available until 1945, so clearly that story leaves out quite a bit. In fact, what Fleming discovered wasn’t very useful at all. It was just a mysterious substance — he called it “mold juice”— that could kill bacteria in a petri dish. It was nothing that could cure anyone which is why, when he published his findings, no one really noticed.

It wasn’t until a decade later that Howard Florey and Ernst Chain rediscovered Fleming’s work. They and their colleagues figured out how to transform the “mold juice” into a storable powder and develop a fermentation process it to produce enough penicillin to perform studies on mice, which were incredibly successful.

Yet still, penicillin was far from a finished product. In fact, the first patient died because they ran out of the wonder drug. So in 1941, Florey and another member of the team, Norman Heatley, travelled to the US, where they collaborated with American labs to identify a more potent strain of the mold and develop an industrial scale fermentation process.  

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