Accidental Innovation?

Hillside Slum

From my very first post, I’ve been writing on the subject of “accidental architecture”, which is also sometimes confused with “emergence”. From the picture on the right (which I used previously on a post titled “Accidental Architecture”), it should be easy to infer what my opinion is in regard to the idea that coherent system can “emerge” via a Darwinian process (at least absent millions of years and a great many extinct evolutionary dead-ends).

This is the thirteenth installment of an ongoing conversation Greger Wikstrand and I have been having about architecture, innovation, and organizations as systems (a list of previous posts can be found at the bottom of the page). In his last post, “Worthless ideas and valuable innovation”, Greger made the point that having ideas is not valuable in and of itself, but being able to turn them into useful innovation is. Triage is vital:

So how do we find the innovation needle in the haystack of ideas? How do we avoid being overwhelmed by all the hay? How do we turn worthless ideas into valuable innovation? Sadly, today the answer is more often than not that we try to “eat all the hay”. We try to implement as many ideas as possible. Sooner or later, often in IT, there is a bottleneck and a huge queue of initiatives build up. “We’ll put that on the backlog”, is the new way of saying “that’ll never happen”.

The answer is to rely on empiricism, short feedback cycles and making small bets. Lean portfolio management has many of the answers, but just as with any idea it is worthless until it is implemented.

Many things can impact our ability to implement. Process, structure, and technology are all important, but people are the key ingredient. There is no silver bullet that we can buy or build. Without the people who provide the intuition, experience and judgement, we are lacking a critical component in the system. It’s no accident that my first post in the “Organizations as Systems” category (written before I ever had an “Innovation” tag on the site) quoted Tom Graves’ “Dotting the joins (the JEA version)”:

Every enterprise is a system – an ‘ecosystem with purpose’ – constrained mainly by its core vision, values and other drivers. Within that system, everything ultimately connects with everything else, and depends on everything else: if it’s in the system, it’s part of the system, and, by definition, the system can’t operate without it.

People provide that purpose (along with the judgement, intuition, experience, etc.). Process, structure, and technology can enhance their efforts, but can just as easily get in the way. The difference between enhancing and impeding seems too important to leave to chance. When the people involved are intentional about their purpose, the scales are tipped. Otherwise, we’re left hoping for a happy accident.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. “We Deliver Decisions (Who Needs Architects?)” – I discussed how the practice of software architecture involved decision-making. It combines analysis with the need for situational awareness to deal with the emergent factors and avoiding cognitive biases.
  2. “Serendipity with Woody Zuill” – Greger pointed me to a short video of him and Woody Zuill discussing serendipity in software development.
  3. “Fixing IT – Too Big to Succeed?” – Woody’s comments in the video re: the stifling effects of bureaucracy in IT inspired me to discuss the need for embedded IT to address those effects and to promote better customer-centricity than what’s normal for project-oriented IT shops.
  4. “Serendipity and successful innovation” – Greger’s post pointed out that structure is insufficient to promote innovation, organizations must be prepared to recognize and respond to opportunities and that innovation must be able to scale.
  5. “Inflection Points and the Ingredients of Innovation” – I expanded on Greger’s post, using WWI as an example of a time where innovation yielded uneven results because effective innovation requires technology, understanding of how to employ it, and an organizational structure that allows it to be used well.
  6. “Social innovation and tech go hand-in-hand” – Greger continued with the same theme, the social and technological aspects of innovation.
  7. “Organizations and Innovation – Swim or Die!” – I discussed the ongoing need of organizations to adapt to their changing contexts or risk “death”.
  8. “Innovation – Resistance is Futile” – Continuing on in the same vein, Greger points out that resistance to change is futile (though probably inevitable). He quotes a professor of his that asserted that you can’t change people or groups, thus you have to change the organization.
  9. “Changing Organizations Without Changing People” – I followed up on Greger’s post, agreeing that enterprise architectures must work “with the grain” of human nature and that culture is “walking the walk”, not just “talking the talk”.
  10. “Developing the ‘innovation habit’” – Greger talks about creating an intentional, collaborative innovation program.
  11. “Innovation on Tap” – I responded to Greger’s post by discussing the need for collaboration across an organization as a structural enabler of innovation. Without open lines of communication, decisions can be made without a feel for customer wants and needs.
  12. “Worthless ideas and valuable innovation” – Greger makes the point that ideas, by themselves, have little or no worth. It’s one thing to have an idea, quite another to be able to turn it into a valuable innovation.

[Shanty Town Image by Otsogey via Wikimedia Commons.]


8 thoughts on “Accidental Innovation?

  1. During my freshman year at the Unversity of Iowa, I had the good luck to fall in with a group of science fiction writers including Joe Haldeman and others. One of the most important learnings I gained from the long nights talking writing was that ideas are cheap, actually converting an idea into something anyone else would want to read (or use) is priceless.

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