How We Model the Universe
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
To almost everyone though all of human history it has been reasonable to see the universe in the following way:
The Earth is standing still
The Earth is the center of the universe
The Sun goes around the Earth in a circle
The Moon goes around the Earth in a circle
The Stars move around the Sky in many different circles
Planets move around the Sky in strange circular ways... sometimes
This model of the universe is easy to create through disciplined observation (you need to stay up all night charting the stars). It is supported by eyewitness evidence and is what we ‘obviously’ see.
This model of the universe eventually took on a formal name, the Geocentric Model.
For all practical purposes, using this model allowed us to predict things with a useful degree of accuracy. It helped us make calendars, estimate times to plant crops, and navigate ships. The model helps humans do useful things, a reasonable definition of a useful model.
As long as 2300 years ago some thinkers have looked at the same eyewitness evidence of the universe and proposed a different model. A model which placed the Sun at the center. However, for almost 1800 years this model attracted little attention. Most lived their entire lives never even hearing of the different model. But even if they did, it didn’t match with the models already in their heads. Also, the different model didn’t help them in any new and meaningful ways.
In the 16th century a Catholic cleric, mathematician, and astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus used a different model to mathematically predict the motions of the heavenly bodies. His math models predicted many things better!
The Copernicus model proposed:
The Earth is rotating on an axis
The Sun is the center of a Solar System
The Earth orbits around the Sun in a circle
The Moon orbits around the Earth in a circle
Planets orbit around the Sun in a circle
Stars are far far away
A lot of astronomers read his work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. He knew it was controversial, so conveniently had it published very late in his life. Others would build upon it. Johannes Kepler improved predictions in the model by making the orbits elliptical instead of circular. Galileo Galilei, based on his observations using telescopes, argued the new model may not be just more accurate math, but how the solar system actually worked.
Most people who cared found the new models unconvincing.
It clearly wasn’t what they felt (it doesn't feel like the earth is revolving on an axis). It might even be against god, and Galileo under threat recanted that it might be real. Eventually, over centuries, as evidence accumulated and technology developed, the support for the new model became overwhelming.
The Earth was not the center of the universe, the Sun was.... no, strike that, by modern times, experts claimed the Sun was not the center of the universe either. It is just a very strong force of gravity for our local solar system. It now appears, the universe has no center.
If a child was born today, however, and raised without access to the accumulated knowledge, they would grow up seeing the physical evidence around them and propose that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun goes around the earth. It is a reasonable explanation for the visceral evidence.
I go into this long history because I propose you take an idea to heart, most of what we believe about everything is like the geocentric model. It is perfectly reasonable to believe it. Many people around us believe it. It is a reasonable explanation of the eyewitness evidence. It makes useful predictions.
However, it is wrong. It is fundamentally and irreversibly wrong.
Here is the rub. Models we believe about business, economics, politics, management, government, are mostly based on our experiential evidence, and are mostly wrong... even though they can be useful.
As times change and we do dramatically more advanced things it is a very worthwhile goal to improve our models.
A geocentric model will not allow you to explore the solar system with spaceships. You will not get where you are trying to go. Likewise, our old models of how business operates and scales are not as good when operating in our modern post-transistor rapidly changing world. They may not get us where we are trying to go.
Old Business Models are Geocentric
The universe in older business models revolves around executive leadership. It is a model for building and scaling business systems, it worked well. But something is clearly going wrong. It is not effective at adapting to rapid change. And, as the world changes more and more rapidly we see significant businesses dying under the old Business Models. Sears is gone. You should be able by now to name 50 more examples with ease.
Agile is Geocentric
From the 1970s until well into the 21st century a project delivery model called Waterfall was quite popular. As the rate of business change increased, driven mostly by technological innovation, a new project delivery model was proposed called Agile. There is just one problem apparent to anyone paying attention... Agile wasn't even a model! Agile was a set of eyewitness observations captured in a document called the Agile Manifesto.
The Agile Manifesto is like getting representatives from the world's great religions together in a room and asking them what principles they can agree upon.
"Treat people well."
"Don't take other people's things."
The agile high priests gave us:
"Individuals and interactions over processes and tools."
"Working software over comprehensive documentation."
"Customer collaboration over contract negotiation."
"Responding to change over following a plan."
In both cases the advice is good. Even helpful. But neither is a model of human or system behavior. Agile doesn't even address fundamental business models which is why agile business transformations fail. Transforming business is not what agile was created to do.
Agile isn't a new model for business operations. It is brilliant, but limited. And now you are in on the secret.