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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The underpants gnome

I was discussing the current plans for health care reform with a colleague who pointed me to a source of wisdom to assess the current debate, that being the animated comedy series South Park. While I do not believe that South Park is on the same philosophical level as the great philosophers such as The Simpsons, there still is worthwhile content.

The specific episode he pointed to was episode 30 entitled "The Underpants Gnomes". This episode is nicely summarized in the Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnomes_(South_Park). The gist of the story centers around the presence of gnomes in South Park who are secretly stealing underwear. When the boys find their secret hideout they find the underpants along with a business plan which goes as follows:

1. Steal underpants
2. ?
3. Profit

What a ridiculous business plan! The underpants gnome episode has been adopted by the entire political spectrum to vilify various ideas and initiatives. For the right, various liberal initiatives have been summarized as:

1. Broad legislative initiatives or social engineering idea
2. ?
3. Utopia

http://savecapitalism.wordpress.com/tag/defense/

For the left, various conservative initiatives have been summarized as:

1. Tax cuts or deregulation
2. ?
3. Prosperity

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2008/07/john-mccain-the.html

I must admit I had to chuckle when I saw the episode but as I thought more about what it implied, I became more skeptical. I don't either side has it quite right. In fact life is filled with many experiences which fall into the pattern of:

1. Act on a hunch
2. ?
3. Success

I suspect that the impact of most high impact innovations were unanticipated. While there might have been something in the place of the ?, but it was way off base. If we always expect to know the steps between 1 and 3 before act, we will almost never act.

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