Learning from the Panama Canal: John Stevens, innovator


The fellow in the photo above is John Stevens, a self-taught civil engineer who made a huge contribution to the development of the Panama Canal over a hundred years ago.  I've been learning about him through the pages of David McCullough's amazing work The Path Between the Seas, which is the story of how the Panama Canal came to be.  From political intrigue which brings down governments to financial engineering that would make even a Goldman VP blush to the hard-headed bravery of entrepreneurial engineers like Stevens, this book has it all.  It's the ultimate start up fable.  It was recommended to me by my friend and colleague Bob Sutton, who is a big fan of the book, too:

This is a great story of how creativity happens at a really big scale. It is messy. Things go wrong. People get hurt. But they also triumph and do astounding things.  I also like this book because it is the antidote to those who believe that great innovations all come from start-ups and little companies (although there are some wild examples of entrepreneurship in the story — especially the French guy who designs Panama's revolution — including a new flag and declaration of independence as I recall — from his suite in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and successfully sells the idea to Teddy Roosevelt ).  As my Stanford colleague Jim Adams points out, the Panama Canal, the Pyramids, and putting a man on moon are just a few examples of great human innovations that were led by governments.

For all you interested in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life, this is a mandatory read.  It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking up a copy — you won't regret it. 

Anyway, back to John Stevens.  Anyone tasked with leading teams of creative people on a quest — where you know what you are going after, but you have no idea how you're going to get there — needs to study Stevens.  A railroad man who trailblazed many a path through the mountains of the American West, Stevens instinctively knew how to get on with things, and how to inspire every one else to do their best.  In a very Dave Packard kind of way, the guy knew the value of literally getting in the trenches to so that he could know — really know — what was happening out in the world.  Where his failed predecessors in the saga of the canal ruled from the dry and safe roost of a remote office, upon his arrival in Panama, Stevens made a huge difference to the morale and direction of the entire enterprise simply by pulling on some big rubber boots and walking up and down the line of excavations, all the while chomping on a cigar.  This guy is a role model for all us trying to make a dent in the universe.

McCullough includes some choice quotes from Stevens, many of which come from some books he authored later in life, which I am planning to read after I finish Path Between the Seas.  Here are some of my favorites, with some color commentary:

"With great respect to supermen, it has probably been my misfortune, but I have never chanced to meet any of them."

As you might expect from someone with the discipline to put in the amount of study to become a self-taught engineer, Stevens was a believer in the simple value of hard work.  I have to believe that if Stevens were to be alive today in order to meet Roger Penske, he would deeply admire Penske's aphorism, "Effort equals results".  I also like this quote because it says something about the nature of talent, that it's not just about being born with something, but being willing to develop your talent, to gain the kind of experience that only comes with mileage.

Here's a great one on the primacy of doing:

"There are three diseases in Panama.  They are yellow fever, malaria, and cold feet; and the greatest of these is cold feet."

I love that line.  I'd wager that more organizations die of cold feet than from the burns that come with trying and failing.  For anyone who has ever engaged with getting an organization to change, it's cold feet that you're fighting.  

Finally, I'll leave you with Steven's wonderful expression of what I call Innovation Principle 15: celebrate sins of commision, stamp out sins of omission:

"You won't get fired if you do something, you will if you don't do anything.  Do something if it is wrong, for you can correct that, but there is no way to correct nothing."

In fact, I like his formulation a lot more than mine: there is no way to correct nothing, so do something.

1 thought on “Learning from the Panama Canal: John Stevens, innovator

  1. Sounds like yet one more reason to love David McCullough. Given the subject matter, if it’s written with anything approaching the grace exhibited in his previous stuff, I’ve no doubt this is a masterpiece. Thanks for the heads up.

Comments are closed.