Learn From the Stars
January 29 2007 by Robert Lawrence Kuhn
“Grand Thinking” makes great companies. I criticize CEOs when they don’t see its importance, and I am frustrated when they do see its importance but don’t make time for its development. CEOs tell me that they are beset with more pressing issues-an excuse that is real, but not legitimate. There is nothing more vital for making companies more valuable, and hence for building the wealth of their shareholders, than Grand Thinking.
Grand Thinking encompasses those visions and strategies that have high impact. Grand Thinking includes thinking big, but it is grander still. Now, how to stimulate Grand Thinking?
I have my own recipe for energizing CEOs to Think Grandly, an approach that could be described as, well, “far out.” I have always been fascinated by cosmology, the study of the origins, structure and ends of the entire universe, whose extraordinary secrets, discovered by insight and precision, have turned speculative philosophy into exhilarating science. The visionary kind of thinking that cosmologists use to discern what really happened billions of years ago in time and billions of light-years away is perhaps the grandest kind of thinking that human beings can ever do.
Further, by studying the past history of the universe, cosmologists can make breathtaking predictions about its future prospects. My point? The same thinking can be applied to the more earthly endeavors of managing organizations.
It may seem absurd to suggest that cosmologies and companies have anything in common. But there is something called “general systems theory,” which looks for similar mechanisms and common causes across widely diverse platforms. It is the idea that overarching principles are at work at all places and levels in the world, and it seeks deep insights by comparing and intersecting disparate fields. So here are some of the central ideas of modern cosmologists studying the universe, along with their “general systems theory” applications to today’s companies.
Think Big-Really Big
COSMOLOGY: About a century ago, scientists thought the entire universe was about 3,600 light-years in size and that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was the totality of reality. Today, the observable universe has a radius of 13.7 billion light-years and is inhabited by more than 100 billion galaxies, many hosting more than 100 billion stars. What’s more, most cosmologists are convinced that even more galaxies and stars, far, far more, lie beyond-even, as strange as it sounds, multiple universes (which cosmologists call a “multiverse”).
COMPANY: Who would have thought that Lakshmi Mittal, who in 1989 acquired the Iron & Steel Company of Trinidad & Tobago, would control the largest steel company in the world by 2006?
Don’t Settle for Speculation
COSMOLOGY: From the dawn of history, human beings have wondered about the origin of the universe. Although many fascinating ideas were put forth by scientists, philosophers and theologians, no one imagined that data and measurement could ever distinguish between opposing theories. After all, scientists can hardly conduct controlled experiments on the origin of the universe. Yet, in just two decades, even cosmologists have been amazed at how their field has become an experimental science with streams of hard data from the very early universe, even from the Big Bang itself, flowing into their telescopes and satellites. Today, cosmic microwave background radiation, which fills the entire universe and is measured meticulously by satellite-borne instrumentation, is believed to be a relic of its Big Bang origin.
COMPANY: For CEOs to speculate is not wrong. What is wrong is when CEOs assume that they can never go beyond speculation. For example, business instincts may suggest developing one product over others. But CEOs should corroborate instinct by amassing real data, such as from focus groups of target customers.
COSMOLOGY: Aligning theoretical predictions with experimental results is the core of the scientific method. Yet regarding the vacuum energy of “empty” space, which opposes the inward pull of gravity in balancing the expansion of the universe (dubbed the “cosmological constant” by Albert Einstein), the predictions of the best physicists using the best theories miss the mark by 120 orders of magnitude-a mismatch between theory and reality that is the worst in the history of science.
COMPANY: When facing a contradiction between the theory of what should happen and the reality of what is happening, a CEO should come to two conclusions: first, reality must be believed; second, something must be wrong with the theory.
COSMOLOGY: When astronomers aimed the Hubble Space Telescope at a minuscule region of space- smaller than a grain of sand held at arm’s length-and took 800 exposures during 400 orbits, they were confident that although the space appeared sparsely populated there was something significant to be found. The resulting photograph showed some 10,000 ultra-faint galaxies, never before seen, as they had been developing billions of years earlier.
COMPANY: A CEO who really understands the business can override what may not be apparent to others less knowledgeable or insightful so as to formulate vital new strategies. When Lou Gerstner took the reigns of IBM in 1993, who would have predicted his remarkable success in transforming IBM from a hardware company manufacturing Big Iron into a leading enterprise software and services company?
See the Unseen
COSMOLOGY: Scientists now postulate an awesome amalgam of multiple universes (the “multiverse”), perhaps stupendous numbers of universes, perhaps infinite numbers of universes! The fact that these putative other universes are forever impossible to observe does not dampen the belief that they really exist.
COMPANY: Steve Jobs saw the unseen when he put Apple, an also-ran in computers with a market share of about 5 percent, into iPods with a market share of over 70 percent.
Solve Many Problems with One Solution
COSMOLOGY: For much of the 20th century, cosmologists seeking to understand the universe struggled with several vexing problems. For example, how could the universe be so uniform on large scales-appearing the same in all directions-without any possibility for interaction between its widely separated parts? Then in 1981, an obscure physicist named Alan Guth proposed that the early universe underwent a short phase of exponential growth called “Inflation” (of the cosmic kind). This remarkable theory, which has been confirmed by independent observations, solved all the problems at once.
COMPANY: When CEOs are confronted with multiple problems, even if very different, they might look or possible links (especially if they have arisen within a given timeframe) nd a simultaneous solution. n a case of multiple disturbances, he common cause was traced to a senior executive whose incompetent hand had touched and triggered each of them. Changing the executive, one simple solution, resolved all of the complicated problems.
Prepare for Shock
COSMOLOGY: For decades, scientists assumed that although the universe was expanding (due to the outward pushing force of the Big Bang), this expansion was slowing down (due to the inward-pulling force of gravity) and might eventually reverse so that the universe would thereafter contract. In 1998, observations designed to demonstrate that the expansion of the universe was in fact slowing down revealed, shockingly, precisely the opposite. In reality, the expansion of the universe was speeding up. The only way to account for this astounding finding was with a new force called “dark energy,” literally the vacuum energy of “empty” space that dominated the universe.
COMPANY: Good CEOs are willing to accept data that contradicts their worldview, no matter how much money or ego they have invested in the previous paradigm. Even if real world data doesn’t seem to make sense, if the data is real-and of course the more it deviates from expectation the more it should be checked and rechecked-then new ways of thinking must be considered. The best CEOs always expect the unexpected.
Think About the Far Future
COSMOLOGY: You think you worry about the future? Scientists contemplating the future of the earth talk about what happens when our sun “leaves the main sequence” in four to five billion years and swallows the earth in its swelling fire. Those contemplating the future of the universe generally begin with events hundreds of billions of years into the future and are quite comfortable speaking of what might happen 1033 years into the future (proton decay) or even 10100 (nothing existing but dispersed radiation).
COMPANY: It may seem that thinking about the far future is of little worth, especially to companies that report profits quarterly (or yearly), but such an assumption would be myopic and mistaken. When one can speculate intelligently about the far future, whether of the cosmos or of companies, it often enhances one’s ability to see more deeply into the immediate future. Trying to imagine consumer electronics in 100 years might help companies plan better products in 10 years.
Corporate leadership in today’s dynamic, globalized economy demands Grand Thinking. To stimulate and energize it, contemplate the cosmos.
Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn is an international investment banker and corporate strategist, adviser to the Chinese government and senior adviser at Citigroup. The author or editor of more than 25 books on business, finance and science, he is editor in chief of