innovation in complexity and chaos

In 2019 I summarized my observations about innovation in — What is innovation? I concluded that while innovation may be 15 things to 15 different people, I still found nine general guidelines.

  1. The connection between innovation and learning is evident and we cannot be innovative unless we integrate learning into our work.
  2. Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse. This is why our social networks cannot also be our work teams, or they become echo chambers.
  3. In our work teams we can focus on incremental innovation, to get better at what we already do.
  4. Communities of practice then become bridges on the continuum between knowledge networks and work teams.
  5. Innovation is all about connections. At a certain point, not enough connections may even destroy the innovations we have made.
  6. Innovation is not a process. It’s more of an attitude focused on curiosity, learning, and experimentation.
  7. A focus on processes and error reduction — such as Six Sigma — actually gets in the way of innovation.
  8. Innovation is like democracy, it needs people to be free within the system in order to work.
  9. Creative work is not routine work done faster. It’s a whole different way of work, and a critical part is letting the brain do what it does best — come up with ideas. Without time for reflection, most of those innovative ideas will get buried in the detritus of modern workplace busyness.

Since 2019, I have continued to learn about innovation, especially in complexity and chaos. Here are nine more guidelines that may be of use.

  1. Complex Networks of Trust — The nation state cannot stop the climate crisis and neither can the market. Only global networks of trust can work on this complex problem. All citizens have to be engaged in sensemaking. Everyone should take the advice of Donella Meadows — “We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”
  2. When trust is lost, knowledge fails to flow. We think we are insulated in our silos while contagion rapidly spreads around us.
  3. In learning about machine learning (ML) I noted how business and human work is moving to — Low Predictability + High Complexity. ML can help to experiment faster and better in order to deal with this.
  4. Creative desperation is what we do when we have run out of time or traditional options. But if people cannot fail, they will go with what has been done before. They may be desperate, but they won’t be creative. Desperation without creativity is a sign of a dysfunctional management structure.
  5. Connections trump expertise — Experts in all disciplines have to get out of their silos and connect in multidisciplinary subject matter networks. A lone expert, or even a lone discipline, is obsolete in the network era. Only cooperative networks will help us make sense of the complex challenges facing us — climate change, environmental degradation, pandemics, political turmoil, etc.
  6. Creativity needs just enough social connections — There seems to be a ‘sweet spot’ between not enough and too many social connections to encourage creativity. Christakis & Fowler wrote that, “As part of a social network, we transcend ourselves, for good or ill, and become a part of something much larger. We are connected.”
  7. An approach of strategic doing through agile sensemaking maintains awareness of the larger context, connects and promotes communities where alternatives can be tested, and takes informed action from a servant leadership perspective of honesty & humility.
  8. Passivity makes no sense if we find ourselves in the chaotic domain, then the optimal behaviour is to — Act > Sense > Respond. In the complex domain the optimal behaviour is to Probe > Sense > Respond.
  9. Leadership in chaos is the result of not knowing what domain we are in and how to deal with it. In February 2022 an Agile IT consultant suddenly became an active duty Ukrainian Army officer.

“I knew how to lead in complexity, according to the Cynefin framework. I should embrace uncertainty and shouldn’t worry about changing plans every 30 minutes. I just had to make small quick planning of the act and then act without waiting. And then sense the results of the act, get feedback, become smarter, and do another activity. And so on.

In contrast, my colleagues in similar positions in the Ukrainian army told me that they worry that they cannot communicate plans and other things. They spent a lot of energy and were nervous about it. I tried to help them by explaining that they simply shouldn’t worry about plans being ruined, that this is a norm in the Chaos domain. Sometimes they listened to my advice and felt much better.” —Dmytro Yarmak

PKM with a cynefin lens

Learning in the complex domain

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