(This article was originally published in Antonio Esparza’s Medium profile, 3 August 2016)
Being serious about innovation and change
The more I study, the more I am convinced that today, the circumstances for successful business performance are more difficult than the ones in our parent’s generation. In all possible levels, we are threatened by the uncertainty of the surrounding complexity in society. Technology changes in an unprecedented way out dating our everyday practices while we still try to catch on the means that we control. Moreover, as if it was not enough, social environments become more unstable and precarious. All the former fueled by people’s restricted working conditions and the fear of people whose jobs are threatened by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation.
The easiest way to describe this uncertain environment is to list the rise and fall of industries or the scenario of the 2008 financial crisis. Nevertheless, examples of these micro level symptoms of collapsing macro structurescan be felt in more subtle events in everyday business. Just to mention few examples; the value of our productive assets diminishes, the value of intellectual property rises at the expense of our ability to leverage and protect it, and workers do not engage seriously with productivity and avoid compromise with their environments. Facing these scenarios, our most obvious answer is scaling up. Only through the multiplication of business we can reach profitability. And only through heavy infrastructure investment we can multiply business. In conclusion, such uncertain environment only forces us to acquire more capital.
It is in the middle of this volatile and complex context that innovation became a top priority concern for management. Just as “total quality management” in the 80’s and 90’s, novel ways of understanding the “exploration” of new opportunities were extracted from the study of the ones who have managed to stay relevant inside their industries. Tools like “business model innovation canvas”, “open innovation”, “disruptive innovation strategies”, and “design thinking” are now the new repository of an army of specialists in charge of building a vessel that can help us navigate through all this turmoil.
Nevertheless, my point in this essay is that the idea of tooling and instrumentalizing innovation and change goes against the nature of change itself. Coding such a volatile environment requires the homogenization of different terms and techniques for the purpose of scale distribution. These actions hijack the definition of what “ought to be” thereby restricting our chances to create something different. In addition, coding such procedures implies expected successful results misleading us from reality. Finally, technology forecasts and trend analysis tools give us a sense of linearunderstanding of the environment while in reality we struggle with exponential effects. Contrary to these perspectives, a critic approach to design science as a way to determine what “ought to be”, clearly shows that the architecture of the future can’t be easily defined and tamed beyond heuristic approaches. Accordingly, when Herbert Simon discusses the ontology of artificial sciences in “ The science of design: creating the artificial” he points out that such practices are extremely difficult to define since future domains are constantly changing. Coding a deterministic approach to innovation may help our anxiety as decision makers, but certainly it will not guarantee the success of our enterprises.
In this moment it is important to clarify that I am not against the homogenization of practices that help us improve our performance. I only make a difference with innovation and change where homologization is nonsense. My guess for the diffusion of this practices is our despair facing uncertainty and the responsibility of our own agency. It has always being better to trust the experts and follow the best practices in order to minimize perceived risk of failure. In my opinion, such unease towards ambiguity comes from the foundational metaphor behind our manager stance. As decision makers we are responsible to guide our organization through a competitive landscape to achieve profitability as if it was some kind of boat or spaceship with a navigation computer that can bring us from A to B. Under this paradigm, it is understandable to expect deterministic tools that bring us from A to B. But if the actual socio-technological landscape cannot be mapped, risks can’t be calculated either and forecasts become as valid as mere guessing. Then, what are we supposed to do to guide our vessel?
In order to look for a metaphor, I focused on my current research. As part of my studies in Auckland University of Technology, I struggle a lot with the definition of design and entrepreneurship. Within that context I found a very coherent definition for entrepreneurship by Per Davidsson who describes it as “the micro level phenomenon of a macro level change”. This definition highlights the mechanics of change stressing the complexity that actual change brings at different levels and the relationship between all of them without being deterministic in the effects of our actions. While discussing this post with my supervisor he pointed out how this definition was similar to the study of attractors in dynamical systems. In such simulations, complex systems are simplified to study its performance in a “toy model”. An attractor is the set of values in a complex system that despite its variability always attracts the values to a certain plotted shape. In such simulations, little variations in the initial conditions create great differences of final performance, nevertheless all those different results, are attracted to the same set. If we plot those systems we get very interesting shapes that show us the dynamical relationship of the involved variables without losing its complexity and unpredictability. Such models were born with the study of weather, a super complex system where every single layer of molecules has a different set of physical properties. Its discovery coined the term “butterfly effect” in a conference paper by Edward Lorenz in 1972. Clearly, the complexity of the actual landscape, could be described by an “attractor set” where slight differences in the initial circumstances can create huge and complex results in the whole system. In such complex scenario, we are not in charge of creating a strong vessel and a convincing road map, we are atmospheric molecules that perform in a micro level as part of a macro ecology of events. Therefore, the Lorenz Attractor of atmospheric simulation clearly resembles a metaphor that in my opinion, describes our role as decision makers in the middle of complexity.
Conceiving ourselves as individual molecules in an atmospheric scenario might even aggravate our sense of agency. Nevertheless with this perspective, new opportunities arise since small changes in the initial state can create enormous differences in the overall system. Research around the decision making processes of expert entrepreneurs by Sara Sarasvathy, found out that more than planning and forecasting, successful founders rely on themselves and their means at hand to build their ventures. Sarasvathy calls this effectuative logic, a stance where “to the extent that we can control the future, we don’t need to predict it”. Sarasvathy’s entrepreneurs innovate by considering their means at hand and effectuating the circumstances and stakeholders to get more means or higher goals. In this sense, being a lone entity inside a complex ecology of entities becomes an opportunity to innovate through effectuation.
To understand more of this alternative perspective of innovation and change we must push the effectuation logic even further in our relationships within our weather model. We have already mentioned how our landscapes cannot be described only in terms of categories, sectors and industries and how this fact restricts not only our perception of the environment but our agency. In this regard, Anne Burdick proposes a critical approach that makes use of future speculation where the interaction of artefacts, products, services, firms, etc. coexist with users altering each other and creating futures that are more complex than actual Utopian technology forecasting. Similarly, the Hyperstition project proposes a philosophical approach where narrative itself is in charge of future building. Both perspectives stress the importance of future building through critical reflection of our socio-technologicalreality and the narratives that we have today. Therefore, creating an image of a future that we build instead of one that we have hope to catch up.
This surely looks as dreadful as unknown, but in the appreciation of a broader picture and a different metaphor we open up more opportunities for autonomous and successful future making instead of homogenized and partial forecasts. A very interesting example are the concepts of the blockchain (the technology behind bitcoin), artificial intelligence and 3d printing. From a “vessel” point of view, all of them fit perfectly in a linear future road map. We all have read how “bitcoin will disrupt the financial sector”, “how 3D printing will enable localized production” or “how AI impacts marketing data collection” but all this scenarios are situated in a vessel metaphor. A “weather model forecast” would also show us how the blockchain can create wealth in new and more dynamic economies. Or how AI could be used to personify complex environments such as crops and make them easier to manage. Finally how 3D printing can increase the available complexity in product architecture to the extent that bodies can be altered through new categories of prosthetics. Contrary to a linear approach, a complex weather one lets us imagine products and services outside our vessel that could not be envisioned before. Which products can we envision within this different economies/environments/bodies?
The proposal of this essay calls for a more serious understanding of innovation and change, one represented by the weather metaphorrecognizing the real complexity of the challenges that we face today. Only in this mode we can make critical use of the tools that we are given according to our unique position respecting the complete socio-technological scenario that we face. My belief is that in the verge of a deep structural change business creation will find a way to create and capture value outside the actual reigning system. Creating multi-dimensional businesses that foster growth in holistic ways apart from the monetary paradigm. Therefore no only surviving the difficult weather but building one that is more suitable for everybody.