Dave Snowden

Ahhh, this porridge is just right

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Most readers will be familiar with the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the three time repetition of too big, too small, just right and so on. The relevance to innovation may not be immediately clear but it is important when we are look at radical, or exaptive innovation. In this contact granularity is critical and we need to deal with both needs and capabilities which are ‘just right’ in that respect. I was teaching this today in Saskatoon in the context of education but the principles are near universal. Many moons ago in IBM days, using Cynefin I made a distinction between incremental and eureka innovation. In the ordered domains of Cynefin we either know, or can know at acceptable cost what is needed and we can use conventional wisdom or expertise to create a solution. In the complex domain however we are looking at radical repurposing to gain a early advantage and that means paying attention to side effects and unintended consequences.

In practice as Brian Arthur and others have pointed out, much technological innovation comes from radical repurposing of existing capability. The magneto of a radar machine for example is repurposed to create the early microwave ovens; IBM repurposed punch cards from an older technology to give them strategic advantage in the early days of computing. Significant advances in drug developments arise from noticing side effects either accidentally or through what is know as white form reporting. Its all about taking something developed in one context and finding a novel or unexpected use for it. In order for this to happen we need to pay attention to the following:

  • The level of granularity needs to optimal or “just right” (the essence of the Arthur book linked above)
  • We need to interpret the material through a level of abstraction that allows the human brain to see the capability in a different light from the original purpose
  • Ideally we want to allow combination with a barely know or unarticulated cluster of needs and then allow a solution to emerge from the combination through experimentation and discovery

Notice that I haven’t used the creativity or openness words here. I’ve focused on the starting conditions and the process. To-date we have tended to rely on gifted innovators or chance discovery but pressure on our planet and on industry requires something more disciplined and scalable. More on this in future posts.