Silver bullet

Why There Is Never Going To Be A Silver Bullet

Forrest ChristianCareers, Decision-making, Underachievers Leave a Comment

There is no single, best way to solve business problems. Or career problems. Or project problems. Or marriage problems. Or any one type of problems.

You’d think that more than two decades after Fred Brooks told us that, at least in software, we would know that there is no silver bullet. The reason is simple:

Life is complex.

Most of the people shilling you an answer don’t even see that their methods or approach is just that: a single approach. They have a particular way of seeing the world and come hell or high-water, you are supposed to follow it.

The problem is that this just doesn’t work.


Because there is no overarching meta method.

I decided to write this after reading some of the material from Alexander Osterwalder. A Belgian colleague of mine is hosting a seminar based on Osterwalder’s methods, which I think are supposed to be used where you don’t know where the company is supposed to go but you can’t stay here. (Also called disruptive or non-continuous change.) It struck me that this is just a particular way of approaching the problem even though it seems to be pushed for almost everything.

Osterwalder’s method seems great when companies cannot survive using their old business model because the world has changed. Many companies that need to use it won’t because it doesn’t fit their dominant decision-making approach, and they’ll be the ones who don’t make the transition. If you’re in a place where the world is changing, and many of us are, this is a great place to start looking for your way forward.

Yet this method, perfect for this type of problem, is maladapted for most regular business problems.

Confusing road signIt struck me that all of us tend to think that the way we approach action is best in every situation, even when it’s not. Even people who are trained in different approaches fail to apply what is clearly the best way to people outside the system.

I’ve already talked about my own problems in this area. Because my dominant approaches to action / decision-making are Imaginist and Systemicist, I do great in ill-defined, murky, “don’t know where to go” problems. It’s Moses leading the Israelites to a promised land they’ve never seen, not Joshua leading them to conquer it, much less David leading them as king. Even the fact that I frame this in mythical story makes it repulsive to many people who use other decision approaches.

And almost nothing that I can do is useful in a steady, dependable market or arena. If it isn’t murky, I’ll make it murky. Or fade away. People like me can change your life, but we can’t help you run it after you get settled because it’s not how we see things.

Every approach and every value system has similar limitations. There is no Silver Bullet because there is no single overarching method that combines everything. Even in a single industry, software development, different projects require different approaches. In fact, most decent-sized projects require multiple approaches, especially over time. You can’t escape the reality that if the work is large enough, your way of seeing and doing is not enough. You need other ways.

And your way isn’t the one ring to rule them all, either, buddy.

It’s one of the things I like about Warren Kinston’s work: there is no simple answer. There’s not even a right or best way to approach his materials. I use them my way, which limits what I can get out of them. But you will use them your way, and so be limited by your self. (I really hate saying this because it eliminates any ability of mine to be a guide guru to going through his materials.)

Stan Smith, in his Human Patterns psychometric, has said similar things. There is no Good or Bad personalities, just personalities. Almost everyone I have ever administered the HumPat to has had a judgmental reaction, getting rather upset or even depressed by seeing something they would rather have not. Possibly a function of who I attract, of course.

Nor do you need to change something. We all see things and think, I need to become more like [someone I think others admire]. But the reality, as the Gallup Poll books like First, Break All The Rules: What Great Managers Really Do argue, the flip of every strength is a fault. There is not perfect personality.

If you’re wondering what this means for a career, here it is:

You aren’t going to be good at even most things, so figure out what you do well and stick to it. Bow out of jobs when they change so radically that your approaches are no longer well suited or when you can no longer frame it to be acceptable to your personality and values.

Stop listening to the voices in your head telling you that you have to be this or that. If you are data-centered, then collect data better. If you are all about our shared values, then find somewhere to express that. If you think that all we need are clear roles and accountabilities, then go where that is so desperately needed.

And while you’re succeeding by doing what fits, never forget that there are many different ways to do things, and while they may be poor choices for your work, none of them is inherently bad and we need the great diversity that the good Lord gave us in our fellows.

Because, to change my tune a bit, the killer app isn’t you: it’s us.

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