A perverse alchemy — turning gold into lead

By Eduardo Paolozzi, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10974111

Once you start to understand that delivering a project is about managing contradictions you start to see them everywhere.

Alchemy is the ancient business of attempting to turn lead into gold. It was a dangerous business, often poisoning the alchemist. Isaac Newton indulged in alchemy and there’s a theory that he managed to give himself serious mercury poisoning as a result. Of course, alchemy is the ultimate get rich quick scheme.

The contradiction here is that the work of the alchemists to get rich quick resulted in the slow yield of not gold, but chemical success and knowledge. And from chemistry came the modern world of steel, plastics and medicines and then electronics.

A long way down the pragmatic path of understanding physics and chemistry, scientists (because that’s what they were calling themselves by that point) did figure out how to turn lead into gold. They also realised that it was an expensive and dangerous process involving the bombarding of lead atoms with radioactive particles and that it really wasn’t worth it.

I think something similar to alchemy is going on in project management. Although a lot of the time, it can feel that the business of project management is not so much turning lead into gold as turning gold into lead.

The gold of course, is the idea. The shining idea.

Ideas seem to have their own rules of attraction. They somehow need to be simple. They meddle with the quantifier.

OK — that’s a sentence that I need to explain, probably even to myself.

In logic there are two quantifiers.

The universal quantifier: all.

The existential quantifier: some.

An attractive idea for a project will often involve the notion of “all”.

“A system that does everything that the old system does.” — All the things.

Or an idea might involve “Same” which is logically like “all” (if two things are the same, they have all the same qualities). An idea like this might be “Just like facebook.” — all the features of facebook.

Mostly “all” by itself isn’t enough to make an idea genuinely attractive. The “all” (the universal quantifier) needs to be accompanied by a comparator — “bigger (or smaller), lighter, newer, faster, different, cheaper.”

“same — but fast”

“Like facebook but different”

“Like your old cola, but with a great new taste.”

“Same. But different.”

Notice what this last idea is saying, logically.

X and not X

Originally published at https://www.mumbly.co.uk.

What daemon possessed me that I behaved so well? - Henry David Thoreau