The Cave of Square Wheels - Organizations and Innovation

In Plato's "The Republic," there is a wonderful story by Socrates about reality, appearances and leadership of change.

People are chained in The Cave so that they can see only reflections on the wall caused by the light of a fire in the cave mouth behind them. Images and shadows are their reality, and as time passes, a culture of the cave develops. Their understanding of the culture over time becomes increasingly complex, they have names for images, categories and can make predictions. There is truth and certainty in the cave as they know it; and there is no other knowledge of the world or its possibilities.

One individual leaves and sees the outside world. Their first reaction is one of fear and pain as they face a world of intense brightness unlike that seen before. Eventually, they realize that the shadows are merely reflections of this more complex world and that the perceived reality of the cave dwellers is flawed.

A paradox arises when this person leaves, experiences a different reality, and returns to the cave:

You could expect him to start a process of communications with the others about their limited perceptions of reality and possibility. He may be ridiculed by his peers because their perceptions have meaning and his are unfamiliar. Stories about the outside world would be un-provable and mystic, unacceptable to the cave dwellers . And he would no longer be able to function in this old world.

Thus is the issue with organizations and improvement.

As people become very familiar with the way things really are within the organization, the benefits of a more encompassing and congruent view of the world as it exists are resisted and explorers sometimes shunned. With all the potential benefits of a more involved workplace with better perspective on possibilities (and some real organizational realities), people sometimes resist the information.

New people coming into the workplace with an "outside perspective" would also encounter problems. A new person coming in and trying to stir up change from the way things currently are would probably meet resistance. He would find his views easily unaccepted or actively rejected, ideas disputed and empathy and pity for his fellow workers misunderstood. He might find it difficult to function effectively in this environment, given a different understanding of reality and an inability to react to his environment with certainty and conviction.

Leaders are sometimes the most difficult to deal with since they get trapped in their perception of reality (which they often created). Yet in this world of continuous improvement and change, a sense of objectivity and innovation are important, as is perspective.


So let's build on the Square Wheels metaphor with a different organizational reality. Consider that most organizations tend to work like this:

Square Wheels roll along...

We roll along on the wheels proven perfectly acceptable in the past. We meet our goals because they are based on incremental improvement of past performance. We pull and push forward. Yet there are round wheels in the wagon -- better ideas and unused resources already available. The dilemma is that we are too busy pushing and pulling to recognize these opportunities to shift our approach.

What is needed is perspective. What is needed is a new viewpoint to define competitive advantages. The handwriting is on the wall that the old ways of doing things are no longer appropriate in this global economy.

Writing is on the Wall

So, our organizations operate with friction and with Square Wheels. Yet a view of the history of the organization might be of benefit, since it offers us a way to make the journey ahead more efficient and effective. See, things did not always work this way. Most would agree that things used to work like this:

Stone Age Wagon


And in most organizations, we get bogged down in the political, ethical glop that is hard to get a grip on

Management support and trust is needed.

Management Support is Critical


And Pride can be a powerful force to make improvements. But we also need to look at what is not working optimally and make changes.

Pride is a key


We can't keep pointing to them if we expect things to change - They is us. We each need to accept responsibility and take action to make improvements.



We can help to define and create a better wagon today, and a much different future for our organizations.


Square Wheels® is a registered servicemark of Performance Management Company. Toolkits of illustrations are available.