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Superspreading ideas
11-18-2005
by Randall C. Willis  |  Email the author
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One of the interesting side effects of writing about both science and business is that concepts described for one subject often meld or twist into ideas in the other. Such was the case recently while I was reading a paper in Nature on the role of superspreading events (SSEs) in infectious disease transmission. The basic premise is that the transmission of conditions like SARS or measles may rely more on events punctuated by specific individuals than on a homogeneous spread throughout a population. These "Typhoid Mary's" trigger SSEs, whereby large numbers of people are infected from localized interactions.
 
Without describing all of the statistical parameters involved, history seems to bear out the theory, with startling implications for the control of future outbreaks. Aside from this realization, however, was the bizarre parallel that formed in my mind between the implications described by the authors about infectious disease and the lessons propagated by hundreds of business writers about best practices.
 
For several years, I have dedicated increasing amounts of time to business books and magazines that tout the latest and greatest ideas for running a successful enterprise. Each book describes highly successful methods that have been developed by highly successful companies, and suggest that if you just follow these simple rules, you too can be a budding GE, IBM, or Novartis.
 
In this sense, the authors (or their subjects) are the Typhoid Mary's of the business world; they are the superspreaders of ideas.
 
I don't mean to imply that the business acumen found in these books will lead to hundreds or thousands of deaths. Rather I question how relevant most of these business practices are in the general populace. How many companies actually saw the benefits touted by Six Sigma? How many of us have learned to really influence people? Have only the lactose-intolerant benefited from having someone move their cheese?
 
The problem I have with most of these books is that they promise universal truths without explaining how anything works and perhaps more importantly, where it won't work. So rarely are there follow-up volumes describing practical failures based on faulty philosophies. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, which is part of the reason I own not only Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma, but also his Innovator's Solution and Seeing What's Next.
 
In business, as in medicine, too many people are unwilling to do the legwork required to find out what really does or does not work in a situation. Instead, they want to provide and apply sweeping generalizations in the hope that if you throw enough stuff at the wall, some of it will stick. Similarly, while everyone knows that medicine and business are fraught with failure, we are only willing to publish the successes. This is too bad, because in my own life, I have learned more from my failures than from my successes; lessons that have stood the test of time.
 
As the scientists studying infectious diseases postulated, what works for selected individuals may not work for the overall population. In their case, it means focusing more treatment and preventative efforts on the superspreaders of disease. In our case, it may simply mean taking the superspreaders of business acumen with a grain of salt and dose of common sense.

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