Tag Archives: Peter Drucker

There Is Surely Nothing Quite So Useless as Doing with Great Efficiency What Should Not Be Done At All

Peter Drucker? Gore Vidal? Professor Giddings? Jesse H. Shera? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I belong to an organization which is expending an inordinate effort perfecting the execution of a task that is peripheral to its mission. A famous management guru spoke about the pointlessness of efficiently performing a function that should not be done at all. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1963 Peter Drucker published an article titled “Managing for Business Effectiveness” in the “Harvard Business Review”, and he discussed the troublesome error of misallocation. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But every analysis of actual allocation of resources and efforts in business that I have ever seen or made showed clearly that the bulk of time, work, attention, and money first goes to “problems” rather than to opportunities, and, secondly, to areas where even extraordinarily successful performance will have minimal impact on results.

What is the major problem? It is fundamentally the confusion between effectiveness and efficiency that stands between doing the right things and doing things right. There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1963 May, Harvard Business Review, Managing for Business Effectiveness by Peter F. Drucker, Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts. (Online archive at hbr.org; accessed February 6, 2017) link

There Is Always a Well-Known Solution to Every Human Problem—Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

Mark Twain? H. L. Mencken? Peter Drucker? Anonymous?

wrong09Dear Quote Investigator: A popular saying presents a vivid warning about apparent solutions which are too good to be true. Here are four versions:

  1. There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.
  2. For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.
  3. Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible—and wrong.
  4. There’s always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.

These expressions have been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, the witty curmudgeon H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), and the insightful management guru Peter Drucker. Which version is correct and who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: The third version above was a close match to a remark written by H. L. Mencken in a 1920 collection of essays called “Prejudices: Second Series”. The third chapter titled “The Divine Afflatus” discussed the mysterious spark of inspiration and creativity in the arts and letters. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil.

Mencken’s original statement used the phrase “well-known solution”, but modern instances sometimes substitute “easy solution”. Latter-day expressions have been constructed with a variable set of adjectives including: “simple”, “direct”, “clear”, “obvious”, “neat”, “quick”, “plausible”, and “straight-forward”. The stinging final word “wrong” has usually been preserved.

Mencken published an earlier version of the essay “The Divine Afflatus” in “The New York Evening Mail” on November 16, 1917, but quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro of “The Yale Book of Quotations” stated that the quotation was absent from this initial work. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1920, Prejudices: Second Series by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Chapter 4: The Divine Afflatus, Start Page 155, Borzoi: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 511, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

When a Subject Becomes Totally Obsolete We Make It a Required Course

Peter Drucker? Apocryphal?

textbooks10Dear Quote Investigator: While perusing a book of quotations categorized as outrageous I saw a remark about college education attributed to the famous business guru Peter Drucker:

When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course.

I haven’t been able to determine where or when this statement appeared. Is this ascription accurate?

Quote Investigator: In 1969 Peter Drucker published “The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society”. Drucker argued that successful organizations must be capable of change and innovation: 1

An organization, whatever its objectives, must therefore be able to get rid of yesterday’s tasks and thus to free its energies and resources for new and more productive tasks.

Drucker indicated that effective ideas for positive change were often readily available, and yet the resistance to alterations within an organization was often very strong. Drucker employed a version of the saying under investigation when discussing the educational domain. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Rather it is organizational inertia which always pushes for continuing what we are already doing. At least we know—or we think we know—what we are doing. Organization is always in danger of being overwhelmed by yesterday’s tasks and being rendered sterile by them.

If a subject has become obsolete, the university faculty makes a required course out of it—and this “solves the problem” for the time being.

In 1976 “Drucker: The Man Who Invented the Corporate Society” by John J. Tarrant was released, and it included a ten-page appendix filled with remarks by Peter Drucker. The Fall 1976 issue of “The Wharton Magazine” from the University of Pennsylvania reprinted seventeen sayings from the appendix. Here are four examples; the third exactly matches the expression given by the questioner: 3 4

We know nothing about motivation. All we can do is write books about it.

So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.

When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course.

The schoolmaster since time immemorial has believed that the ass is an organ of learning. The longer you sit, the more you learn.

In 1992 Drucker crafted another phrasing for his idea. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1969, The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society by Peter F. Drucker, Quote Page 193, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1969, The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society by Peter F. Drucker, Quote Page 193, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1976 Fall, The Wharton Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1, Bits, Start Page 12, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Published by Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified on microfilm)
  4. 1976, Drucker: The Man Who Invented the Corporate Society by John J. Tarrant, Section: Appendix, Quote Page 260, Published by Cahners Books, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)

We Cannot Predict the Future, But We Can Invent It

Dennis Gabor? Abraham Lincoln? Ilya Prigogine? Alan Kay? Steven Lisberger? Peter Drucker? Forrest C. Shaklee? Anonymous?

gaborkay02Dear Quote Investigator: I have seen several different versions of an adage about prediction and invention. Here are some examples:

The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.
We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.
The way to cope with the future is to create it.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
The best way to predict the future is to create it.
You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.

These sayings are not identical in meaning, but I think they fit together naturally as a group. Could you explore the origin of these expressions?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in 1963 in the book “Inventing the Future” written by Dennis Gabor who was later awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in holography. Boldface has been added to the following passage and some excerpts further below: 1

We are still the masters of our fate. Rational thinking, even assisted by any conceivable electronic computors, cannot predict the future. All it can do is to map out the probability space as it appears at the present and which will be different tomorrow when one of the infinity of possible states will have materialized. Technological and social inventions are broadening this probability space all the time; it is now incomparably larger than it was before the industrial revolution—for good or for evil.

The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is. The mental processes of inventions are still mysterious. They are rational but not logical, that is to say, not deductive.

In March 1963 the book was reviewed in the periodical New Scientist by the editor and writer Nigel Calder who found the saying memorable enough to include it in his review. Calder presented a rephrased version: 2

His basic approach is that we cannot predict the future, but we can invent it, hence his title. He is essentially optimistic.

In 1968 Orville Freeman, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, employed the same concise version of the saying during a government conference, and he credited Gabor: 3

Dennis Gabor once said, “We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.” And it was Wilbert Moore, the great sociologist, who told us that “Revolutions thrive on utopian images, and without such images they will fail.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1964 [Copyright 1963], Inventing the future by Dennis Gabor, Page 207, Alfred A, Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper) [The spelling “computors” was used in the book.]
  2. 1963 March 28, New Scientist, Books: How to be dignified though useless, by Nigel Calder, [Review of “Inventing the future” by Dennis Gabor], Page 712, Column 2, Published by Reed Business Information. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1968, National Manpower Conference, [Held at the Student Union, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, May 17-18, 1968], The Rural to Urban Population Shift: A National Problem, Statement of Orville Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture, Start Page 111, Quote Page 112, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust)