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Found a silver bullet? Think again!

Early in my career I was volunteered, (I know that’s an oxymoron, but most of us have experienced “being volunteered”), to join a quality circle. We met on a regular schedule, discussed problems and identified solutions. Our managers kept stressing how important our quality circle was. It was interesting for a while. Nothing much came from it.

Perhaps nothing came from it because “being volunteered” was the wrong starting point. I think it did not work because the expectation of what our quality circles were going to achieve was out of proportion.


Quality circles were my first experience of a silver bullet. My definition of a “silver bullet” in this context is of an approach, method, or tool that is presented as the solution to all your businesses problems. The silver bullet becomes, for a while, the disproportionate focus of management attention.

This is what happens: a new and clever set of thinking arises. It is promoted and suddenly there is a swell of opinion that this new thinking encapsulates wisdom that will radically improve your business. It’s the latest silver bullet. Everyone gets on the bandwagon. Managers and business leaders adopt the language of this silver bullet, even if they don’t really understand it. 

The truth about silver bullets is this: they will never solve all your problems. Sometimes they don’t solve any of them!

I have experienced, survived and learnt from several iterations of such silver bullets: TQM, business process re-engineering, continuous improvement, lean, six- sigma to name a few. You probably have experienced some silver bullets of your own. 

Now, before anyone who is a fan of any of these approaches feels their hackles rising, I have no problem with any of them. There are some heavily promoted silver bullets which have turned out to be hot air – but the ones I have named all have their place. I have seen each of them deliver impressive performance improvements. I have learnt from each of these approaches and applied that learning to my everyday style of working. 

I like new approaches – and am deeply interested in them. But I have a problem with the way some of their more ardent fans promote them. I also have a problem with our tendency to all get swept up into the fad.  What do I mean by this? Let me explain with a couple of typical situations of claims being made for a new approach.


Being sold a silver bullet

I remember being told, with full sincerity, by a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, that once everyone was trained in Six Sigma there would be no need for project managers. He claimed that anything can be delivered as a Six Sigma initiative. I have seen Six Sigma deliver very impressive improvements, and remain in awe of some of the Six Sigma teams I have met. But I have never seen it build a bridge or launch a new product. (But no doubt someone will insist that this can be done)

Let’s look at a more recent silver bullet - Agile. Agile can deliver substantial advances in project performance. In software development for example, some teams have seen radical improvements. I am not questioning Agile itself, but how it is argued for. 

Agile is often presented as a replacement for the historic approach to projects – typically labelled as “Waterfall”. One tactic is to show to show how poor project performance has historically been. The logic goes: Xx% of projects have failed. Those projects used Waterfall. QED: there is a problem with Waterfall. That problem is solved with Agile. 

The flaw with this argument is that Agile initiatives sometimes fail too. Now comes the clever bit.  When the promoter is challenged about this, the response is usually – “that’s because they were doing Agile wrong”. This article is not really about Agile, so let’s make this line of argument more generic: 

Old approach X results in failure. New approach Y never results in failure. If there are any failures with approach Y this is due to new approach Y not being applied properly. 

This thinking would serve any despotic leader well. There are, (at least), three difficulties with this thinking:

•Old approach X did end up sometimes in failure, and old approach X is almost certainly flawed. But we should not forget old approach X achieved some impressive things - and we never thought it was a panacea. 

•New approach Y may be better than old approach X, even much better. But it is not magic and it will undoubtedly fail in some situations. 

•If new approach Y is so difficult to apply that people constantly get it wrong – it’s probably not a very good approach, (… and  by the same logic isn’t it possible people were previously doing approach X wrong as well?)


Why this happens 

Does this ring true? We get wave after wave of hype and excitement about a new approach. Why? I believe there are three reasons why we get these waves of promotion for the latest silver bullet. 

Reason one is passion and naivety. Individuals get swept up in a new approach. They see some fantastic gains when it is applied and they develop a passion for this new approach. The passion leads to advocacy. The passion blinds them to its weaknesses and the limitations in terms of where the approach is relevant – or their experience is restricted to a specific situation in which the new approach works. Just because approach Y is brilliant in situation 1 does not guarantee it will work in situation 2.

Reason two is money and status. A new approach means opportunities to sell advice on how to apply this new approach. There is nothing wrong in this in itself – good, value adding advice is worth paying for. The problem is that the desire to make money, gain kudos and even academic success out of new approaches can lead to bias. Methodology has become a major money spinner. Not all new methodologies are worth that money, and even those that are, are often over-hyped. Be wary of the snake oil salesman!

Reason three is that we want to believe. We like the idea that there is a single simple solution that is easily within reach to solve all our problems. We look for silver bullets not only at work, but in many aspects of our lives. Yet it pays to be a tiny bit sceptical. Listen, learn, but don’t buy all the hype. Resist your own desire to find the silver bullet.

Explore new methods. Constantly update your approaches and if something works, adopt it. But don’t expect it to solve every problem you have. Don’t get too swept up in the hype. Nothing is really a silver bullet. The new approach may give you a route to improvements, occasionally significant ones. But it will inevitably leave some problems untouched, and it may invent some new ones of its own.


This article was first published on Linkedin in August 2014

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Daniel Monday, 03 April 2017 05:54 posted by Daniel

    Thanks for finally writing about >Found a silver bullet?

    Think again!

    Thanks for your comment Daniel. There's a lot of people promoting silver bullets, and I think we always need to be a bit careful about thinking solutions to complex problems are ever really easy!


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