by Henry Mintzberg, author of “Bedtime Stories for Managers: Farewell, Lofty Leadership . . . Welcome, Engaging Management“
It is thrilling to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. How many people are capable of such creativity? But there is another kind of creativity of which we are all capable. It’s quite ordinary, in fact, even if its results can be extraordinary: they have sometimes changed the world. It’s all about one little switch.
Let me explain with a joke I once heard: “I’d like to die like my grandfather died — quietly, in his sleep. Not like those other people in the car who died yelling and screaming.” We picture grandpa in bed, but he was actually behind the wheel. It’s just a little switch really, the basis of many jokes.
Jokes, of course, don’t change the world. Nor did Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, for that matter. But if you are capable of making a joke, you are capable of making a little switch, which means you are capable of changing the world.
How about this little switch? In 1928 the physician Alexander Fleming was researching antibacterial agents in his London laboratory. One day he noticed that mold had killed some bacteria in one of his plates. “That’s funny,” he said. Standard practice was to discard such samples and carry on, which Fleming in fact did. But following a conversation with a colleague, he took that sample out of the trash, asking himself if this mold could be used to kill destructive bacteria in the human body. That was the critical moment — the one little switch. What at first seemed to be trash suddenly became opportunity.
The rest took great effort — 14 years, in fact — before what he immediately called “penicillin” was used to treat infections. Looking back on this, Fleming said, “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer.” But that is what happened, and it changed the world — thanks to that switch from the trash to the bench, and then the body.
And don’t forget that one little switch at IKEA — about taking the legs off the table, from the car to the customer — that changed the furniture business. And by the way, that too required great effort: I was told that it took 15 years to work it all out.
Maybe you have never written a great violin concerto. But I’d bet you have come up with your share of little jokes. So why not use that talent to do something more serious, like changing the world?
Henry Mintzberg is the author of “Bedtime Stories for Managers“. He is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, the winner of awards from the most prestigious academic and practitioner institutions in management, and the recipient of twenty honorary degrees from around the world. He is the author or coauthor of twenty books, including “Managers Not MBAs“, “Strategy Safari“, and “Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning“, and is a founding partner of Coaching Ourselves.