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The no straight lines of innovation

December 10, 2011

Steve Song runs Village Telco – a name at NSL we love. We connected recently via the No Straight Lines project and he kindly sent me through a few posts to read that related to some NSL topics.

I was taken by his post on innovation, constraint, and design, he quotes Dave Snowden, and Aydin Örstan.

It is interesting that Africa is innovating in mobile and tech in extraordinary ways – simply because of, the hunger to make for a better life, and, to use what is available to hand, even though constrained. Those that do not see Africa as a place to study for why innovation happens almost in spite of so few resources – are looking through the wrong lens. Steve’s edict for his own operation is, make a telco as easy to operate as a wordpress blog, what you might describe as taking a complex problem and simplifying it (it becomes simplex). Not that you dumb it down but one defines a goal of transformation, and executes. And also – be as open as possible (Principle #5 in No Straight Lines).

The first issues relate to Constraint and Complexity

Interestingly, about the same time as Ethan was writing about constraint, Dave Snowden was offering his own tentative rules of complexity in the 5 Cs of Complexity.  The first of which is, you guessed it, constraint.  He says that

Constraint is key to understanding complexity, it governs the transition between the three ontologies. Increase constraint and you create an ordered system; do that inappropriately and you create the conditions for catastrophic failure; remove constraint and the system is chaotic…

Understanding the boundaries and critical variables in the environment that you are operating in is the key to intervening successfully in any complex system.  Too constrained and there is no innovation, witness most development projects based on a logframe. With no constraint, innovation also doesn’t happen because (I believe) that innovation is a dialogue involving people and things.  With no control, innovation is easily dissipated in many possible directions.

Innovation and Evolution

Aydin Örstan has a great quotation from François Jacob (The possible and the actual, 1982) in an interesting post on evolution.  François says:

In contrast to the engineer, evolution does not produce innovations from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it a new function or combining several systems to produce a more complex one. Natural selection has no analogy with any aspect of human behavior. If one wanted to use a comparison, however, one would have to say that this process resembles not engineering but tinkering, bricolage we say in French.

5 things to think about  innovation

  1. Understanding the constraints / tensions of the challenges we face is vital to bringing about novel solutions
  2. Being able to marshal multiple external inputs to simulate models to aid patterns we can recognise is key
  3. Judgment is required in evaluating those patterns in assessing viability and potential
  4. Understanding intuitively (creativity) is required – this is where complexity, networked thinking meets ambiguity
  5. Play and iteration perform a key function in moving beyond what was previously seen as impossible

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