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Asking New Questions: the Shropshire Iron Bridge

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Could questions fuel personal and corporate goals?

Toward the end of Free: The Future of a Radical Price (NY: Hyperion, 2009), Chris Anderson cited an example of a bridge in Shropshire, England (p. 213). This bridge was built at the beginning of the Industrial Age (1779), just when builders were shifting from timber to iron as a construction material. But the thinking had not yet shifted to where builders realized iron could be used differently than wood. As a result, the bridge was “wildly overdesigned,” made with iron elements cast separately, and thousands of metal planks fastened and bolted together after the fashion of wooden structures. The bridge is still around today, though much reinforced over the years.

The builders didn’t realize this new material required a very different approach to bring out its strengths. Iron cast in larger sections could take advantage of natural strengths. Small iron castings fitted like wood negated those strengths.

Anderson used the bridge and the bridge-building techniques as an analogy to understand Free. The entire book is a masterful (and thoroughly readable) argument for why the free-to-many-and-paid-by-a-few model works for so many companies today. Anderson also dived into the history of free, along the way citing Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, (a favorite of mine) which describes how gift economies work (hint: gifts tap our genetic pre-disposition toward reciprocation, that is, giving back).

Leaders Lead. Followers Follow. Will Followers Lead?

The point is that new materials, just like new tools, invent or allow or conjure new ways of working. And rather than trying to do the same old things but with newer stuff, we need to sniff out the new goals and new methodologies. In particular—given social media tools—I’m curious how leaders and followers will connect on shared goals.

We’re now well beyond telling each other how to use social media—we’re thumb deep in using all sorts of apps for personal communication. And those tools are quickly working their way into commerce (I nearly always read reviews of products before I buy), into travel, into politics and into our work lives. I would argue the new tools change the way our faith lives work, especially in relation to leading and following.

I keep returning to a phrase I ran into earlier this week, from Dassault Systemes:

If we ask the right questions, we can change the world.

Wise leadership looks for game-changing questions. And those questions come from anywhere—from up, down or outside the organization. It is these questions we’ve not yet addressed that will help us understand the new tools, methods and (even) goals and direction.

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Written by kirkistan

September 28, 2012 at 8:54 am

One Response

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  1. […] long thought the answers we get depend on the questions we ask. But those answers also depend on the tools we use to unearth the answers. Writing is my primary […]


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