Streetcar Innovation

Streetcar InnovationIn my recent post, “Bus Driver Innovation,” I compared the work of the innovation practitioner to that of a bus driver in terms of leading a team to a destination without necessarily being involved in every aspect of the innovation dialogue.

Another form of public transportation also serves as an interesting metaphor for the work of the innovation leader – the streetcar. However, for this analysis I’ll turn to the field of international relations where the term “streetcar” appears in the form of two well-known anecdotes. By deconstructing these examples, we can reveal some potent observations for the innovation practitioner.

The first “streetcar” anecdote is the most striking and can be evoked by most students of international relations with the simple statement of “Pleikus are streetcars.” This statement, uttered by National Security Adviser MacGeorge Bundy during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, referred to the central Vietnamese city of Pleiku. In 1965, a US Army base near Pleiku was attacked by Viet Cong soldiers, killing 8 soldiers and wounding another 126. The incident led Bundy to advise President Johnson to launch air strikes against North Vietnam, resulting in a significant escalation of the fighting. Pleiku is viewed as one of the critical points of no return in terms of increasing the US involvement in the Vietnam War. The curious aspect of Pleiku is why that particular incident, rather than numerous other incidents, ended up being the key incident that led to escalation of the war. In his masterpiece The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam provides the following explanation of the statement, cementing it in the historical record of the period:

A few days later, after the bombing campaign had begun, a White House reporter came across Bundy in the White House barbershop. Bundy was sitting there being lathered, and since he could not easily escape, the reporter thought it was a good time to ask Bundy something that had been bothering him since the incident. “Mac,” he said, “what was the difference between Pleiku and the other incidents?”

Bundy paused and then answered, “Pleikus are like streetcars” (i.e., there’s one along every ten minutes).

I don’t intend to revisit the debate about whether Bundy’s statement indicates that the Administration wanted to ramp up the war all along and just used Pleiku as an excuse. Looking back over the course of events, the White House reporter wanted to parse the details of Pleiku to understand why that incident was unique. Bundy, on the other hand, took the long view that if Pleiku hadn’t occurred, another streetcar would have rumbled along to lead to the same outcome.

The second well-known streetcar analogy in international relations comes from the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, in office since 2003, has demonstrated a mixed record on supporting reforms on his country’s path to democratization. In one interview, Erdogan spelled out his philosophy by saying:

Democracy is a tool to bring people happiness. […] Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.

Since uttering those words, Erdogan has been permanently associated with the phrase “democracy is like a streetcar.” As the journalist Michael Kaminski notes, to Erdogan, “democracy is just a tool, not the aim.” For the Prime Minister, democracy was a concept that he used to achieve certain objectives, but he did not view it as an overarching idea that would consume his every thought. At the appropriate time, Erdogan would step off the streetcar of democracy and continue on to a different destination, grateful for what democracy had done to get him to that point but not eternally wed to the concept.

In both of these examples, the notion that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good rings true and is instructive for practitioners of innovation. From an innovation perspective we should think about Pleiku as an example of why we shouldn’t be held captive to waiting for the perfect event to trigger our work in innovation. In innovation workshops we sometimes are dissuaded from looking more in-depth at certain ideas because we’re missing a critical piece of the solution, such as an organization sponsor to drive the innovation or the perfect technology to solve a problem. We may have identified a real challenge facing our organization or client, but we back away from the challenge when we sense that the technology needed to solve the problem is far away. We may even abandon the pursuit of the challenge altogether for such a concern. My contention is that we should take the long view like Bundy and recognize that the missing piece will rumble along like a streetcar. We might even find in the course of the investigation that a different technology solution can address our original problem.

The streetcar aphorism from Prime Minister Erdogan is likewise instructive for the innovator in the sense that we must not become so focused on the mechanism of our journey that we lose sight of the overall destination. For Erdogan, perhaps the destination was a transformation of his country that stopped short of full democratization, given his country’s history and current challenges. Democracy was a useful tool along the pathway to his goal, but at the appropriate time he understood that focusing too much on the tool, at the expense of the destination, could lead to a less optimal outcome. Innovators who spend too much time thinking about a specific technology and not enough about the problem they are trying to solve could end up being unsuccessful in their endeavors. The lessons of Erdogan’s and Bundy’s streetcars can serve to remind us of the importance of the long view.

Sources:, David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), pp. 532 -533.,, Matthew Kaminski, “Turkey’s ‘Good Dictator’,” Wall Street Journal (June 10, 2011). image credit: making tracks image from bigstock

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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