Do Ideas Change the World?

30 Nov 2005|Steve Diller

A friend recently emailed me to point out an apparent contradiction in “Making Meaning,” the book I co-wrote that’s out in late December, and a recent blog of mine. The blog, entitled “How Cheskin Destroyed Civilization as We Knew It,” argued that Louis Cheskin came up with the idea for the modern fast food restaurant as a revolutionary “casual dining” concept. The result, eventually, was a decline in the idea of “formal” anything, dining or otherwise.

My friend noted that, in the book, we argued that business thinkers don’t really invent revolutionary ideas, they just respond to what’s already there.

Which of these arguments were correct, she asked?

I answered glibly that consistency is over-rated. There’s that old saying that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” or something like that. Then there was the hopefully-valid argument that my legions of readers wouldn’t begrudge an evolution in thinking.

But all of this is really beside the point. Perhaps what we should’ve said in the book was that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether business thinkers change the world, or simply articulate what’s “in the air.” That’s a debate better left to Structuralists, Marxists, and other “ists.” I’m more interested in what people DO with ideas.

It’s hard to even contemplate writing a blog without believing that sharing your ideas can be useful to readers. But it does get me thinking. How much of what business thinkers have to say is actually useful? A guy like Phillip Kotler helped cause a transformation of fundamental business practice, by putting customers at the center of that practice in a whole new way. Did he change the world? No. Millions of students of his did, though. Many made fortunes. Billions of people had new, more rewarding experiences. THAT seems pretty useful.

Kotler (or Cheskin) had a positive impact, that’s all we can say for sure. This makes me ask myself anew, are my ideas useful? In a significant way? It’s hard to know. Perhaps only many years after one contributes one’s ideas does it become clearer. Regardless, for the time being, I’m taking it on faith that doing this pays off for other people. I’ll just have to hope that lack of consistency won’t undermine it too much!

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