Dave Snowden Tackles Innovation

Coping with Complexity
Dave Snowden’s new organization Cognitive Edge is launching a new initiative to use complex system approaches to foster innovation. His thesis is that there are three necessary preconditions to innovation: starvation (what I call scarcity — a shortage of resources where usually there is abundance), pressure (what I call urgency — an immediate and relentless demand for resolution of the scarcity), and perspective shift (new ways of thinking about the problem). He’s planning on testing this thesis with a program in the Australian outback co-hosted by aboriginal guides.

Here is what I wrote to Dave when I read about this:

I’ve developed a theory recently to explain human behaviours like procrastination: We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. The first two of your necessary conditions for innovation (starvation/scarcity and pressure/urgency), are consistent, I think with We do (first) what we must.

Your third precondition for innovation (perspective shift) is, I believe, an attribute that some people enjoy entertaining and some people (not entirely the same group) are particularly good at. My experience is that perspective shift is a skill that can be honed, or learned. I think it ties into Then (to the extent we’re capable) we do what’s fun. Many people are neither skilled nor enamoured of perspective shifting — they are change resistant. You might be able to make them better at it in the outback of Oz, but my guess is that your attendees will already be innovation champions and change resilient.

My theory as to why most (especially large) organizations are so poor at innovating is that they don’t have to innovate to succeed (it is cheaper and less risky to buy out, buy off, scare off or crush innovators that threaten them), and that they do not attract or retain people who are competent and interested in perspective shift — new ways of looking at problems and challenges. And the economic system is increasingly rigged in their favour. Only what Christensen calls Disruptive Innovations, introduced by stealth, can dislodge them, and when they do, the dinosaur organization doesn’t move to adapt in this case either, so by the time it “must” change, it is already too late. Christensen’s argument that the dinosaurs can learn Sustaining Innovations to mitigate the risk of being disrupted out of existence is, I think, just wishful thinking (after all, he has to give them some hope or they won’t pay his consulting fees or buy his books).

On a larger scale, this same “can’t adapt until it’s too late” problem presents itself in our inability to deal with global warming and other ‘wicked’ complex social problems, which is why philosophers like John Gray have pretty well given up on our civilization and our culture. [Some readers wonder why, if I agree with Gray, I care about how businesses, innovative or not, will fare until civilization’s collapse: There’s a reasonable explanation, but that’s the subject for a future article.]

As regular readers know, I’m a champion of entrepreneurship, and especially sustainable, Natural Enterprise. The fact that large incumbent corporations addicted to growth can never hope to be innovative doesn’t bother me in the least — their vulnerability to disruptively innovative natural enterprises is a good thing, and these big clumsy dinosaurs (think: General Motors) won’t be missed.

Dave Snowden is, like me, a fan of Open Space, and he plans on using a modified version of it in his program. He has six qualms about Open Space, however, that he plans to address with his modifications:

  1. It requires outstanding facilitators, but can be over-influenced by their charisma.
  2. It is overly focused on the event itself, rather than seeing Open Space as a part of a journey.
  3. There is insufficient use of dissent and debate and an over-focus on consensus and dialogue.
  4. The pendulum is swung too far from expert based interventions, to assuming that the group assembled will have the necessary expertise.
  5. People not at the event can be excluded from involvement in the follow through.
  6. Issues of judgement and validation are assumed to belong to the group regardless of context and responsibility; it is worth remembering that Socrates was condemned to death by an open space event because he made the other participants uncomfortable.

The modifications he proposes are:

  • Use of a catalytic event or process to disrupt entrained patterns of thinking and prepare participants to be open to novel or new ideas.
  • The assembly of a diverse range of perspectives on the issue, objectively to prevent premature convergence on any analysis or determination of action.
  • Inclusion of people who, while not naive in their area of practice, interest or expertise should be naive in respect of its potential application to this issue to allow for innovation. 
  • Initially focusing on maximizing friction between the diverse perspectives and naive participants to create the conditions for innovation, and then focusing on specific interventions and tools which are refined before the end of the event into concrete and tangible actions.

My sense is that Dave’s experience with Open Space has led him to believe his six qualms are inherent in the Open Space process rather than the result of a flawed application of it. Here’s my response to each of these qualms, in order.

  1. With each experience in applying Open Space, I believe participants learn to self-manage the process and cease to be ‘led’ by or dependent on facilitators. Every methodology has a learning curve.
  2. The critical part of Open Space is the collective actions that participants sign up for once they have achieved a deep understanding of the issue, and the personal actions that each participant decides to undertake as a result of that understanding, in the context of his/her own job or capacities. Any particular issue will involve series of conversations and possibly several Open Space events as components of the personal and collective ‘journey’ of resolving the issue or problem at hand.
  3. Maybe it’s the Welshman in Dave that makes him fond of dissent and debate as ‘creative friction’. One of the things I learned from Hugh Brody’s study of indigenous people’s complex problem-solving processes is that wide open, candid, detailed knowledge sharing (largely through stories), letting people learn by doing, precision in communication, deep listening skills, strong analogic and inductive thinking capacity, excellent memory and recall, Let-Self-Change rather than solutions imposed on others or on the environment, profound respect for individual decisions and autonomy, waiting to be asked for advice rather than proffering it, great self-confidence, egalitarianism, trusting individuals with personal responsibility to act as they see fit, and deliberate recognition of uncertainty, are critical to the process and to the success of methodologies like Open Space. These are skills and capacities that many of us in modern societies lack, and they must be re-engendered before any methodology will be effective. Creative friction is no substitute for these skills and capacities and, I would argue, are unnecessary once these skills and capacities are present among the participants.
  4. As a champion of the Wisdom of Crowds I have developed enormous respect for consensus and dialogue, and confidence that if the ‘crowd’ is large enough, diverse enough, and sufficiently informed, they will do a much, much better job than any so-called ‘expert’. In my opinion, the pendulum Dave refers to hasn’t swung nearly far enough.
  5. A proper Open Space process trusts the participants to involve others as appropriate in the follow-through and personal action plans after a particular event. The event is only a small part of the ‘journey’; many others with passion about the issue will inevitably be involved in that journey.
  6. I think my points 4 and 5 immediately above address Dave’s concern about reckless and irresponsible actions coming out of properly-convened and properly-conducted Open Space events. If the results of an event are reckless or irresponsible, I would argue that it’s a problem with the execution of the Open Space methodology, not the methodology itself.

So in conclusion, I still like the 9-step process I reviewed in yesterday’s post — the Collective Complex-Environment Problem Resolution Process, as the mechanism for organizing collective action around a particular complex problem (including the problem of lack of innovation). And I still like my new 15-step process laid out and diagrammed in that post (I’ve included the graphic again above) for Dealing With Complexity Day-to-Day, as a mechanism for responsibly governing ourselves throughout the ‘journey’ that, collectively and individually, will allow ‘sensible’ resolutions to complex problems, over time, to emerge.

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2 Responses to Dave Snowden Tackles Innovation

  1. I have to admit…I’m overwhelmed a little with this post and the one before it. For me, much of the art of dealing with complexity (whether in decision making or Open Space) comes down to practice. It’s quite hard to put this into words, but at OSLIST recently we have been discussing the evolution of Open Spoace and the prevailing consensus has been that it is not the process that evolves, but the practitioner. That has been my experience living in an Open Space worldview. I’m always looking for places to simplify and encourage practice to allow for individual and collective leadership and responsibility to emerge. It still comes down to the following practices when you have an issue of passion, complexity, diversity and urgency: issue and invitation and get to work in Open Space. If these pre-conditions are lacking, it always seems like we have to try harder to make it all work. Let’s have a chat about this stuff Dave(s) and I’ll fill you in a little more on where I’m coming from, if you’d like.

  2. Dave Snowden says:

    Long post Dave – I need to respond at more length than I have time for (on by blog as well as here).However a couple of minor points now.1 – the Australian process uses modified open space techniques as a part of what we call distributed reserach. The research process is not a modification of open space.2 – we have run it before so we know its valuable3 – I don’t want to say that dissent is more valuable than dalogue, or discouse. But I do want to say that it is as valuable. Which you use in which context is key. If you only allow dialogue or rely on large numbers to provide diversity then you are more limited in what you achieve. We have experimental results that confirm dissent increases the ability of a group to handle weak signals for exmaple. Its not an either or question but a balance of exploration and exploitation

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