The Trap of Walking the Planck

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On March 17, 1905, Albert Einstein submitted for publication a paper on the particle/quantum nature of light that completely upended the classical understanding of physics, and for which he would later win his only Nobel Prize. He did this while working in his first steady job out of college — not as a member of academia or the scientific community, but as a lowly junior official in a Swiss patent office.

Interesting as that story is, this post is not about Einstein at all, but the man whose work formed the foundation of Einstein’s quantum discovery: Max Planck.

In 1900, Planck devised a mathematical equation that explained how radiation wavelengths related to temperature. In order for his formula to work, a mathematical constant, minute in size, was required. This tiny value, which Planck considered to be merely a calculation correction and not a measurement of any physical reality, is now known as Planck’s Constant and is “one of the fundamental constants of nature.” Max Planck was a physics giant in his own right.

And yet …

What Einstein saw as the revolutionary extension of Planck’s discovery, Planck himself refused to accept as valid for years afterward: Planck’s Constant was actually a measure of the light particle itself. (We now know them as photons.) While Einstein’s creative thinking rewrote the science of physics, Planck’s inability to let go of conventional wisdom left him behind the times as the new understanding of physics unfolded before his eyes. At the end of his life, Planck lamented this fact:

My futile attempts to fit the elementary quantum of action somehow into classical theory continued for a number of years and cost me a great deal of effort. Many of my colleagues saw in this something bordering on a tragedy.

How often do we as people, as leaders, and as organizations, do the same thing? A new way of thinking or doing things comes along — something truly innovative and unconventional — and we dismiss it out of hand because it can’t be reconciled with what we already “know”?

Kodak engineer invented the digital camera in 1975, but because the corporate leadership couldn’t let go of the classical view of photography (film and prints), digital photography killed Kodak instead of reinventing it.

Sony had, on the one hand, the creative history of inventing portable music with the Walkman, and, on the other hand, the legal rights to the music industry’s biggest artists. What Sony didn’t have was leaders who could imagine letting go of the conventional way of distributing music (via the forced bundling of record/tape/CD sales), even as the rise of Napster signaled the end of that business model. The opportunity to reinvent the music industry then fell to Apple — a computer company with no experience working in the music industry.

  • “Conventional wisdom”
  • “The way things are done”