The Red Wagon Principal – Knowing Is Better Than Naming

The Red Wagon Principle: Have words like holistic, sustainable, best practice, resilient or complex insinuated themselves into your thought leadership?  Maybe that’s not such a good idea.

“A little boy ran up to his father, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull my wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?” And his Dad says, “That nobody knows. The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” He goes on to say, “If you look close you’ll find the ball does not rush to the back of the wagon that you’re pulling against the ball; that the ball stands still or as a matter of fact from the friction starts to move forward really and doesn’t move back.” So the little boy runs back to the wagon and sets the ball up again and pulls the wagon from under it and looking sideways sees that his Dad was right! The ball never moved backwards! Relative to the wagon it moved backwards, but relative to the sidewalk it actually moved forward a little bit! It’s just that the wagon caught up with it! ”

You understand inertia now, don’t you? So did the little boy. His name was Richard Feynman and he won the Nobel in Physics in 1965 for his theory on Quanatum Electrodynamics. Of this story and his father he says: “Now that’s deep understanding – he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

Think Like Feynman’s Dad
Do we really know what we’re talking about, or is it all just “buzz?” Consider this:

CFO Magazine on Enterprise Risk Management: “ERM offers a “holistic methodology” for identifying, assessing, quantifying, and addressing strategic, operational, market, financial and human risks in order to optimize risk-return profile.”

Wow, that sounds like something the Pointy-Haired Boss from Dilbert would say! Okay, even assuming you and your Team know exactly what CFO is talking about in this little gem, how many of your clients do? Can you see how vagueness and imprecision might lead to confusion and unrealistic expectations?

Think like Feynman’s Dad…how would you explain these to a child?
– Holistic methodology?
– Complexity?
– Resilience?
– Best Practices?

If an immigrant from Russia, who sold uniforms for a living during the Depression, can explain inertia (not just name it but explain it) to a little boy, shouldn’t we be able to do likewise with our bread & butter concepts? Maybe use this challenge at your next staff meeting as an ice-breaker!


6 thoughts on “The Red Wagon Principal – Knowing Is Better Than Naming

  1. Great post, John!

    You nailed one problem endemic in our culture; we’ve buzz words galore, but little or no meaning.

  2. Nice post on a really relevant topic. Unfortunately, important concepts become obscured or entirely lost when the words describing them are hijacked or corrupted within the mainstream. Sustainability is one such word. Despite the fact that few truly understand what is meant by sustainability, people are sick and tired of hearing it used.

  3. Pingback: Complexity, Sharks & Risk Consultants – How “Internal Auditor” Magazine Got It Wrong « Prologue

  4. I’m trying to locate (or even remember the title) of the general science picture-book that story was in. It also included a story of liquid heliuem (immersing a test tube of liquid helium inside a beaker of liquid helium and having the levels equate) and lots of other wonderful “unknowns” ( a coil with a cobalt core not following the flow depicted by the right hand0, transposing skin from the back to belly of a frog, binary numbers, etc. Anyone recall the book or the title?

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