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The Planet Vulcan and
Your Business Decisions

By Peter Meyer
July 14, 2017

Managing uncertainty has become more and more a part of any business. This article is about growing and that always deals with uncertainty, but these days just treading water feels uncertain.

So is there a good course to manage the ever changing paths? Yes. Can we learn something from the story of the planet Vulcan? And yes, I am serious.

This is not a discussion about facts. It's about understanding how to help people manage uncertainty. You may not have been thinking much about the planet Vulcan, but it has a history that can help us.

Finding the Planet Vulcan

You may think of Vulcan as the planet where Dr. Spock (from Star Trek) was born. Vulcan actually predates Star Trek. And it really applies to managing growth.

Let's start with Sir Isaac Newton, who developed what we think of as the law of gravity. After his death in 1727 astronomers spent over a century applying the gravitational attraction model to planets. Most results fit Newton's model but there was always one problem: The planet Mercury. There is a blip in Mercury's orbit for which Newton's math doesn't allow.

But the theory does work if you have a small planet between Mercury and the sun. That fits Newton's law, but as good scientists the astronomers wanted to lay eyes on the planet. It wasn't easy with the then current telescopes, but enough scientists found the planet that it was taken as fact in 1859. The argument was settled for most when prominent astronomers such as Le Verrier and James Watson declared that Vulcan had been seen. It was real.

Losing the Planet Vulcan

Somewhat later Albert Einstein started developing a general theory of relativity. It was a lot of work, the calculations took perhaps eight years to conduct. Then he wanted to test them. Looking for some examples, he chose Mercury's orbit. The math worked, and explained the blip in the path.

Now that was a problem. Vulcan's existence and Einstein's relativity model could not both be true. Most scientists accepted relativity. With that acceptance no-one could find Vulcan in telescopes. The planet ceased to exist as quickly as it had been found.

Managing Disappearing Planets in
Your Business

In your business career, have you ever seen something that was considered an absolute certainty that was then rocked by a new theory that challenged it? If you have a smart phone near you, you've an example of certainty being challenged. Open the hood of your car, the same is true in engine design. Or maybe you won't even have a car in the near future, and isn't that the end of a certainty?

Does that mean that we should all start denying facts? Or that science is bad? Or that our business assumptions and norms don't matter? No, but it means that we have to assume that rock solid facts actually aren't.

The obvious question is: If we can't rely on what we may not know about technologies, customers, regulators, and the economy, well on what do we rely? I'm going to suggest a different question: "Is good management about what we know, or what we don't yet know?" I am going to say that good management is about what we don't yet know.

To succeed in growing a business, we have to assume that the planet we see may not really be there. Market disruption is all about removing things that have become obsolete. Land lines at home, distributor caps in your car, a volume knob on a television set were all certainties for what seemed a long time. You might have built business assumptions on those, and now have a failed business.

On what can you rely? Not on a planet or a distributor cap. You can't rely on any object or product. But you can rely on your own capability to grow and expand. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford calls it "mindset" and has written an excellent book by that name. Look at it this way:
- You can learn.
- You can encourage the people on whom you
rely to learn.
- And you can encourage them to ask questions
and listen.
Those are the key to managing disappearing planets.

Finding the Next Planets

You always have the option to develop technologies. You always have the option to ask what the next serious problem will be. Go with the problem. The problem as the customer sees it will define the solution that stays, just as wider problems made Einstein's theory the right solution.

Solving a problem can open up new problems. Planets appear, then disappear. What is important? Your ability to ask the right questions to get to the next problem. Problems are good for growth. What we have seen over and over is that if you manage your team to find the right problem, and do it again and again, then the planets will align and your business will grow.

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