You can’t always get what you want…

Lucifer

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

When it comes to systems, you can’t always get what you want, but you do get what you design (intentionally or not), whether it’s what you need or not.

In other words, the architecture of systems, both social and software, evolve through some combination of intentional design and accidental emergence. Regardless of which end of the continuum the system leans toward, the end result will reflect the decisions made (or not made) in relation to various stimuli. Regarding businesses (a social system), Ruth Malan, in her February 2012 “Trace in Sand” post, put it this way:

I have been talking about agility in terms of evolutionary ecology, but with the explicit recognition that companies, comprised after all of individuals, attempt to speed and alter and intervene and interject and intercede and (I’m looking for the right word here) shape evolutionary processes with intentional actions — concerted, but also emergent from more and less choreographed, actions and intentions. Being bumped along by the unpredictable interactions of others, some from within, but also from “invasive species” from other ecosystems looking for new applications for their adaptable, mutable capability set.

Organizations create and participate in business ecologies. They build up the relationships that stabilize parts of the broader ecosystem, and create conditions for organizational forms to thrive there. They create products, they create the seeds of the next generation of harvest. They produce variants on their family tree, to target and develop niches.

Ruth further notes that while business adapt and improve in some cases, in other case they have “…become too closely adapted to and integrated within an ecosystem that has been replaced or significantly restructured by some landscape reshaping change…”. People generally refer to this phenomenon as disruption and the way they refer to it would seem to imply that it’s something that happens to or is done to a company. The role of the organization in its own difficulties (or demise) isn’t, in my opinion, well understood.

Last Friday, I saw a tweet from Noah Sussman that provides a useful heuristic for predicting the behavior of any large social system:

the actual reason behind the behavior:

It’s not that people are actively working to harm the organization, but that when there is no leadership, where there is no design, where there is no learning, the system ossifies and breaks down. Being perfectly adapted to an ecosystem that no longer exists is indistinguishable from being poorly adapted to the present context. I’m reminded of what Tom Graves stated in “The game of enterprise-architecture”: “things work better when they work together, on purpose”.

Without direction, entropy emerges where coherence is needed.

This is not to say, however, that micro-management is the answer. Too much design/control is as toxic as too little. This is particularly the case when the management system isn’t intentionally designed. Management that is both ad hoc and rigid can cause new problems while trying to solve existing ones. This is illustrated by another tweet from Friday:

The desire to avoid the “…embarrassment of cancellation” led to the decision to risk the lives of a plane load of “…foreign TV and radio journalists and also other foreign notables…”. I suspect that the fiery deaths of those individuals would have been an even bigger embarrassment. The system, however, led to the person who had the decision-making power to take that gamble.

The system works the way you built it, even when you didn’t intend to build it to work that way.

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Fear of Failure, Fear and Failure

Capricho 43, Goya's 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters'

Some things seem so logically inconsistent that you just have to check them out.

Such was the title of a post on LinkedIn that I saw the other day: “Innovation In Fear-Based Cultures? Or, why hire lions to be dogs?”. In it, Michael Graber noted that “…top-down organizations have the most trouble innovating.”:

In particular, the fearful mindsets that review, align, and sign off on “decks” to be presented to Vice President-level colleagues often edit out the insights and recommendations that have the power to grow the business in new ways.

These well-trained, obedient keepers of the status quo are rewarded for not taking risks and for not thinking outside of the existing paradigm of the business.

None of this is particularly shocking, a culture of fear is pretty much the antithesis of a learning culture and innovation in the absence of a learning culture is a bit like snow in the desert – not impossible, but certainly remarkable.

Learning involves risk. Whether the method is “move fast and break things” or something more deliberate and considered (such as that outlined in Greger Wikstrand‘s post “Jobs to be done innovation”), there is a risk of failure. Where there is a culture of fear, people will avoid all failure. Even limited risk failure in the context of an acknowledged experiment will be avoided because people won’t trust in the powers that be not to punish the failure. In avoiding this type of failure, learning that leads to innovation is avoided as well. You can still learn from what others have done (or failed to do), but even then there’s the problem of finding someone foolhardy enough to propose an action that’s out of the norm for the organization.

Why would an organization foster this kind of culture?

Seth Godin’s post, “What bureaucracy can’t do for you”, holds the key:

It lets us off the hook in many ways. It creates systems and momentum and eliminates many decisions for its members.

“I’m just doing my job.”

“That’s the way the system works.”

Decisions involve risk, someone could make the wrong one. For that reason, the number of people making decisions should be minimized (not a position I endorse, mind you).

That’s the irony of top-down, bureaucratic organizations – often the culture is by design, intended to eliminate risk. By succeeding in doing so on the mundane level, the organization actually introduces an existential risk, the risk of stagnation. The law of unintended consequences has a very long arm.

This type of culture actually introduces perverse incentives that further threaten the organization’s long-term health. Creativity is a huge risk, you could be wrong. Even if you’re right, you’ve become noticeable. Visibility becomes the same as risk. Likewise, responsibility means appearing on the radar. This not only discourages positive actions, but can easily be a corrupting influence.

Fear isn’t the only thing we have to fear, but sometimes it’s something we really need to be concerned about.


This post is another installment of an ongoing conversation about innovation with Greger Wikstrand.