Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Discontinuous Discoveries

Image:  Gouache and gesso  by Black Elephant Blog author

Image: Gouache and gesso by Black Elephant Blog author

Have you ever wondered how well suited organizations today are for a world of inevitable surprises, including “black swans”, “black elephants,” and other outsized dangers and opportunities?  Most organizations are embedded in complex systems where even the tiniest decisions–such as how many times their drivers back up their trucks in a day–are monitored, measured, and evaluated.  Managers and employees are judged on how well they meet project goals established in the past, never mind what may be the new circumstances today.  While infinitely easier to manage–and, frankly, possibly the only way we know how at this point–such organizations are no longer fit-for-purpose in the world we’re living in, according to a great many people in touch with these realities.

“The world is not just rapidly changing; it’s being reshaped,” says Dov Seidman, author of the book “How” and C.E.O. of LRN, in a column today by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.   According to Seidman, “It’s all happened faster than we’ve reshaped ourselves and developed the necessary norms, behaviors, laws and institutions to adapt.”

What are some of the implications of such a mismatch?  As explored in the last post here on this blog, the breakthrough insights that led Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park to decode German wartime communications in World War II–the subject of the film, “The Imitation Game,” currently probably in a theater near you–emerged from a series of interactions that were not planned, expected, or inevitable.  (Thus this crucial breakthrough could not be “managed” by any conventional meaning of that term.)  Yet, from this series of connections, coincidences, and hunches emerged the glimmerings of a solution that turned around a war, shortening it possibly by a couple of years, and saving an estimated 14 million lives.   In a thought experiment, consider whether the Bletchley team would have succeeded if its laboratory was housed inside the institution to which it reported.  (It turns out that Bletchley Park was chosen primarily because of its proximity to a rail line connecting it to Oxford and Cambridge from whose universities the needed codebreakers were expected to come.) In today’s world, 75 years later,  are we leaving prospects for our well-being (whether on local or global scales) to chance by relying on outmoded ways of thinking about organizing knowledge?

Fortunately, in pockets here and there, it seems that we have learned, and continue to learn, much more about how innovation and insight creation work, and how their results can be harvested and applied to real-world problems.  Over at the University of Illinois, for instance, under the leadership of Dr. Bruce Vojak, co-author with Abbie Griffin and Raymond Price of Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms (2012), an online discussion group called the “epistemology of innovation” has been underway for some time.  In a series of essays, Vojak has made the case for the “non-linear” nature both of breakthrough innovation and innovators, as in this essay (cited with permission).

Linear and Nonlinear Systems

Image: From “On the Epistemology of Innovation: How Breakthrough Innovators Connect the Dots,” Number 23, February 1, 2014, accessed at Copyright Bruce A. Vojak, 2014

Vojak’s essay distinguishes between non-linear and linear systems and includes this helpful chart for ready contrast.  He notes that breakthrough innovation is a “messy, complex process that does not follow nearly defined paths.” He continues:

“While a finite set of certain activities must be conducted as the innovation process unfolds (such as identifying the best problem to address, understanding the problem deeply, and synthesizing what is known into an innovative product concept), these activities typically are attended to repeatedly, in only a general order initially and with little or no predictability thereafter.”  Vojak concludes that the underlying nature of “innovative discovery” can be described mathematically by using chaos theory.  “Non-linear systems abound in nature,” he writes, “and also play a key role in engineered systems, such as the conversion of an audible signal to a much higher frequency, enabling its transmission in a communication system.”  He notes that breakthrough innovation, like a non-linear system (as he describes in the table above right), exhibits “identical extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, as well as the other characteristics of non-linear systems.”

Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist, dives into similar questions in his book, Seeing What Others Don’t:  The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (2013).  One of the insights to come out of his work is that many organizations typically emphasize critical thinking at the expense of generating insights.  Yet, effectiveness (and performance improvement) depend on both.  “Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes,” he writes, and yet many people feel that their organizations stifle their attempts to do a good job (by having insights!).  In his book, Klein relates the results of his research into how insights get triggered, what interferes with insights, and how organizations can foster insights.

It turns out, Klein concludes, that:

“Insight is the opposite of predictable. Insights are disruptive. They come without warning, take forms that are unexpected, and open up unimagined opportunity. Executives may believe that they want insights and innovations but are most receptive to new ideas that fit within existing practices and maintain predictability.”

There is a “magic of insights, ” according to Klein.  This magic “stems from the force for noticing connections, coincidences, and curiosities; the force for detecting contradictions; and the force of creativity unleashed by desperation.”  It’s a tall order for organizations accustomed to delivering consistency and predictability.  But what are some implications of applying linear expectations to a non-linear world?

Future posts will take a closer look at what Vojak and his associates call the “epistemology of innovation” and the conditions  and habits of mind which Klein has discovered are forces for disrupting our thinking in ways which–in a disruptive world–are becoming more important in every endeavor.  As ever, links to relative material are welcome and will be included on this blog.


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