Why do lamps have lampshades? The rather surprising answer is: because Thomas Edison tried to hide the revolutionary nature of electric lighting by making it seem as similar to gas as possible. This entailed centralized electricity generation, running wires to lamps hanging in the same places as gas wall-sconces, burying wires (at extremely high short-term costs much to the chagrin of his financier J.P. Morgan) and making lightbulbs far dimmer than was technical necessary, among other things. Lampshades — formerly to protect against the spluttering of gas flames — were kept as a visual symbol that electricity was not so very different from gas.
At the same time that he tried to downplay most of the differences between gas and electricity, Edison did point out that in addition to lighting, electricity also made it possible to heat and cook in a cleaner, safer fashion. Once electricity began to take hold, its potential to power a wide range of appliances was gradually unveiled.
Edison had learned some hard lessons from failures to introduce earlier innovations he had developed. His genius in this case was not so much related to the lightbulb itself (of which he was not actually the inventor) as it was related to his systemic and forward-looking plan to introduce a significant change in society.
Successful change management means determining which aspects of an innovation to display and which to hide as well as keeping some of the old system. Maintaining aspects of the old system provide signals that help people understand how to use the new system and also reassure them that change is manageable. Objects like lampshades that “serve no objectively functional purpose but are essential to the public’s understanding of the relationship between the innovations and the objects they displace” (1) are called skeumorphs (also spelled skeuomorphs) (2).
Other well-known skeumorphs include our computer “desktops” and “recycling bins” that were introduced into graphical user interfaces in order to help us understand how to use these once unfamiliar machines.
In many ways, skeumorphs are not so different from the transitional objects like stuffed animals and blankets that children use to help them manage the separation process from their mothers. Security blankets do not fulfill any of the direct functions that Mama does: food, protection, love, etc. But they do create the illusion that things have not changed so much from the period when Mama’s rapid responses to the child’s needs gave him or her a sense of omnipotence.
To be successful, change management needs to consider how to maintain elements of the old in order to help people cope with change. It is worthwhile to invest in rituals and traditions because these seemingly useless old things may actually be the key to introducing the new.
(1) This definition is taken from the fascinating documentation of Thomas Edison’s introduction of electric light by Andrew B. Hargadon and Yellowlees Douglas “When Innovations Meet Institutions: Edison and the Design of the Electric Light” in Administrative Science Quarterly. 46 (2001):476-501.
(2) The word is derived from the Greek words skeuos: vessel or tool and morphe: shape.