Men, Machines and Modern Times - Elting Elmore Morison

Morison illustrates and analyzes why men resist change, and asks whether or not this is a good thing. Many examples of successful change in retrospect+ are viewed unequivocally 'as for the better’; we take the stance ‘but of course’. But in the moment, when no one else has demonstrated the change how do we know if it’s good or bad. Should we take a ‘go slow’ approach to major change?

Bessemer converter, Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield, England (2010)
Men are often right to resist major change. Change is the tool of the demagogue+, the tyrant and the management consultant. Change often bowls over tradition and tears tribal loyalties. Past successes are overshadowed and diminished. Change has just as much capacity for damage as for good. In the pharmaceutical industry we often rib our industry brethren (good-naturedly) for their inability to do anything until another firm has shown it to work. We called it the lemming effect. But when you work in an industry flush with cash you are besieged with offers of change: with many attractive narratives on how life could be better if you would just …

When an industry is in decline though, change is demanded. Maintaining the status quo as a deliberate choice is no longer viable. But industries don’t fall off a cliff. They experience many years or decades of gradual erosion. During those decades, there will be many small signals+ that could be interpreted as a turnaround: many small wins and many researchers who believe they are working on a breakthrough that will secure the future for their firm, and perhaps for the industry. There are a few isolated successes. But in general today the signs (at least in the pharmaceutical industry) all point toward a general industrial decline.

Morison's Men, Machines & Modern Times, and especially his chapter “Almost the Greatest Invention” describes at length the decline of Big Iron and the rise of Big Steel (mid 1800’s). The parallels between then and now are striking.

Big Iron

Big Iron executives were the first approached with an offer to change over to the new Bessemer Steel technology. They refused. Big Iron USA had just spent 20 years building and refining the best manufacturing operations in the world: they had “sunk costs” of millions of U.S. dollars and years of sweat equity.

Reasons for not wanting to change were numerous: steel was more costly to manufacture; it’s more dangerous; it requires major new capital investments. Existing contractual relationships would secure Big Iron’s future for years. Customers have manufacturing operations that use iron and won’t switch. Steel will only succeed in niche markets. Etc.

The reason that God was able to create the world in seven days is He didn't have to worry about the installed base. Enzo Torresi (1996 or earlier)

The installed base, existing customers, vendors, distributors, suppliers all have vested interests in defending the status quo. Change is difficult, disruptive, uncertain and requires major new investments when I’m now comfortably past my start-up investment phase. Each executive, looking at it from his or her narrow point of view, can only see the downside in a major industrial transformation for their industry: until it’s too late.

Big Steel

These following were the “new men” of Big Steel:

…the innovators, the men without heavy commitments to the system of attitudes and prejudice built up in the [existing industry] … by virtue of the diversity of their interests they were, relatively, freer to assess the meaning of any new process and to throw their energy and intelligence behind its development. They could weigh the merits of [new approaches] not by trying to decide what it [meant for them in the old industry] but what problems it would solve for them in their [new industry]… [you see a] consistency that develops in any personality or attitude … an almost careless quality, a preoccupied note, runs through the activities of these [new industry] men as they strove … to put the innovation on a sound basis. Morison, Elting E. (1968). Men, Machines, and Modern Times


The (modern-day) discovery of Bessemer Steel was a combination of luck, hard work and downright ingenious problem solving. 1 “Almost the Greatest Invention”, especially the account of Andrew Carnegie’s plunge into the industry for Phase Two, inspired the Three Phase Framework.

The men of Big Steel are our new men. If it wasn’t “new” they were not interested. Morison describes how these men lost interest and found other activities once the industry moved to to Phase 2. The “thrill” of starting a new industry was now spent.

…the medium [Bessemer Steel] gave them the opportunity to express themselves in new ways, to make new and exciting arrangements, to create something out of their thoughts and feelings that had not existed before. Once achieved, they were readier to move on to other mediums [plate glass, open hearth, peace]. Morison, Elting E. (1968). Men, Machines, and Modern Times

Morison describes the importance of new money in the formation of the Steel industry. Big Steel was funded by investments from the railroad industry anxious for new steel rails. This new money came prepackaged with its new commercial form (i.e., the Steel Oligarchy). This new money of Phase One was later replaced by the banking money of Phase Two.

What Morison under-emphasized was the importance of the new organizational form. Carnegie may not have been tempted to step in to remake Big Steel into the behemoth it became had Big Iron (and its pre-existing organizational form) embraced Bessemer Steel from the onset. Big Steel is now seen to have arisen from a fortuitous combination of new money, new men and new organizational form. In World Class R&D we demand all three for the launch of new Investible Units+.


Editor's Picks for January, 2011

  • 1. No spoilers in this article, you have to read the original to really appreciate the magnificence of this achievement.
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