Agilists Still Face Tesla’s Enemies

Nikola Tesla readingAs you read this, give thanks to Nikola Tesla. An extraordinary genius whose career spanned the turn of the previous century, his inventions are the basis for the systems powering your device and transmitting this post wirelessly. He had so critical a role in the technology undergirding our life today, the author of a 2018 biography titled it, Tesla: Inventor of the Modern.

Tesla was born in today’s Croatia in 1856. His first significant engineering work was for Thomas Edison’s company in Europe, helping make Paris the “City of Lights.” But after he came to America and got a job working directly for the inventor, they eventually had a falling out that became the “War of the Currents.” Edison was dedicated to widespread adoption of the form of electricity now found primarily in batteries, direct current (DC). Tesla was a proponent of the alternating current (AC) form now used in everything else. They fought bitter campaigns against each other for years before Tesla’s view won out, helped by his magic-like stage demonstrations, in which he passed high-voltage AC through his body to prove it was safe.

There are entire Web sites dedicated to the man and his genius, to which I refer you for details, or to that fascinating biography, the source of this post’s quotations. I bring him up to argue that he faced resistance to change for many of the same reasons Agilists do today.

For instance, many managers resist improvements on the grounds they will cost too much, regardless of the long-term payoff. Around 1882, Tesla outlined for some fellow Edison workers an AC motor that could work with different levels of current. “’My idea,’ he said, ‘was that the more wires I used the more perfect would be the action of the motor.’ Yet the pragmatic and cost-conscious Edison engineers scoffed at the scientist’s ideal, complaining copper wires were the most expensive part of an electrical distribution system; they wanted less, not more, wiring,” author Richard Munson says.

For all his success, Edison might have accomplished much more had he not practiced the willful blindness I explored earlier, “bragging about not appreciating scientific theories. ‘At the time I experimented on the incandescent lamp I did not understand Ohm’s law,’ admitted Edison. ‘Moreover, I do not want to understand Ohm’s law. It would prevent me from experimenting.’” This position hurt him, Munson says. “Understanding Ohm’s law, however, would have revealed a core problem with Edison’s direct-current approach…” Loosely, that law says the less pressure there is or the more resistance from the wires, the shorter a distance electricity can travel. DC cannot create high enough pressure to send electricity very far. By not acknowledging that, Edison wasted years experimenting on and promoting technology that was doomed. Edison’s approach required many generation points in any location, as opposed to our modern AC model envisioned by Tesla of a central generation point sending electricity hundreds of miles to many locations.

Tesla became a celebrity through showmanship, but worried about people growing indifferent to an innovation’s value when the thrill wears off. I saw this happen with self-directed work teams, and am seeing it again with Agile. While some managers practice willful blindness, others get excited by each new fad and never implement the underlying principles. Now DevOps is the shiny bauble, though it only exists because it fills a gap in the adoption of Agile.

After he and Edison fell out, Tesla found an ally and employer in George Westinghouse— that Westinghouse—but their goals ultimately did not align. The “War of the Currents” partly came down to whether electricity was only for rich people and big business, or would be democratized to help everyone, as Tesla dreamed. “Smart money favored small and dispersed generators for mansions over central power stations for the masses. Even with the advance of alternating current and the ability for larger generators to transmit electricity over longer distances, both General Electric (after merger with Edison’s company) and Westinghouse preferred the immediate profits from selling isolated generators over the uncertainties of marketing electricity from centralized generators.” Focusing on short-term gains with a few customers instead of investing in a bigger vision for an expanded market is something I’ve witnessed first-hand in many of my employers. As an Agile Coach, furthermore, I’ve often fought attempts by product managers to derail planned efforts that would help all customers in order to meet one customer’s immediate demands.

“Commenting on other barriers to innovation, (Tesla) complained that people, particularly investors, resisted radical ideas, even ideas that improved the status quo. He also grumbled that entrenched interests opposed change, saying, ‘Perhaps the greatest impediment (to invention) is encountered in the prejudicial opinions created in the minds of experts by organized opposition.’” This remains too true of many in the project management community, and ironically is already becoming true of Agile “leaders” trying to protect their brands. The Agile-Industrial Complex takes advantage to make more money pushing self-serving concepts.

Though Tesla had the grand vision, he did not apply himself to commercializing those ideas as Edison had. Another engineer by the name of Samuel Insull had to prove centralized generation profitable, for example. Insull took a job paying 1/3 of what he could have earned at GE Edison in favor of leading a small Chicago firm. There he took innovative steps to bring down his rates for AC power, greatly increasing demand, in turn allowing him to operate his plants “regularly and efficiently” and reduce his costs and further lower rates. In short, instead of fighting the new idea, he proved how to make money off it. Insull said, “’Every home, every factory, and every transportation line will obtain its energy from one common source, for the simple reason that that will be the cheapest way to produce and distribute it.’”

Tesla described radar, alternative energy sources, and vertical takeoff airplanes decades before their invention. In 1908 he predicted the Web, video calls, news sites, music streaming, podcasts, and smartwatches in a single quote: “An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader… or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner, any picture, character, drawing or print can be transferred from one to another place.” He was so often right about technology then and now, it’s sometimes lost that he was very wrong on some topics. Tesla dismissed Einstein’s relativity theory and thought airplanes could not “soar” until Charles Lindberg proved him wrong. Most tragically he was wrong about his greatest obsession, the wireless transmission of messages and power through the earth, due to misunderstanding the planet’s internal structure. I take from this a reminder to constantly question my Agile beliefs.

Tesla and Edison had diametrically opposed approaches to invention. Tesla did most of his work in his head, claiming with some exaggeration that he could envision every detail of an invention to the degree that he could see it break down in operation. (In reality, he did some prototyping and experimentation as well.) In contrast, “Edison worked best when he cooperated with a team” and progressed primarily though trial-and-error. The approach is exemplified in his famous statement quoted in the book, “’Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.’” Imagine what they would have achieved had they dropped enough ego to truly team up—if Einstein had learned more theory, and Tesla had been a more dedicated experimenter. Managers, take heed.

Like Tesla with AC, I am pushing a cheaper and more democratic form of Agile based on scientific knowledge against “prejudicial opinions created in the minds of experts” by the Agile-Industrial Complex. Like Insull, I am foregoing greater personal wealth and power in the fight, but I am trying to follow his example by proving this approach more profitable. Like Edison, I experiment constantly with changes in a careful way that proves them effective (or not), assuring what I teach works in the real world.

When Westinghouse’s company was under attack from the Robber Barons of the era, who were trying to monopolize electricity the way they had railroads and sugar, Westinghouse asked to renegotiate Tesla’s lucrative contract. It included royalties from every Tesla-designed motor Westinghouse sold ($2.50 per horsepower, worth untold amounts today at that same price). Instead Tesla made the grand gesture of tearing the contract up, eventually ruining his finances while that company and others made billions off his ideas. Here’s hoping I don’t end up as poor and isolated as Tesla.

If I do, I will take comfort in one more quote from him: “The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of a planter—for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.”

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Source: Munson, R. (2018), Tesla: Inventor of the Modern. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.

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