Watching BP’s inability to stop the hemorrhaging of oil into the Gulf reminds us how difficult it is for any organization to predict, prevent, and to deal with complex problems. Yet the number of complex issues that are on our collective radar continues to increase. Has living in the world become more complex? Or do we perceive it that way because we have so much more information and communication?
We Have Urgent, Complex Issues to Address and Opportunities to Innovate
Complex issues abound. We need to cap an oil leak under tremendous pressure. We need to slow the rate of global climate change. We want to provide affordable wellness and healthcare to everyone. We want to be able to avoid, or at least moderate, the next global recession. In our businesses, we want to improve our organization’s ability to spot opportunities, take responsible actions, and reap rewards. We want to anticipate customers’ needs and deliver exceptional experiences that will turn them into happy and loyal fans.
We Need to Accelerate Our Abilities to Innovate—as Individuals, Organizations, and Ecosystems
There’s a real thirst for tools and approaches that will accelerate our ability as groups of people to tackle these (and many other) complex issues. Every business executive I interview talks about the need for more flexibility to be able spot opportunities and to move quickly. These executives seem genuinely puzzled by how easy it is to sense and detect patterns, yet how hard it seems to be to take actions in the physical world that won’t backfire in some way or where the time delay from conception to execution is just too long. People in many industries want to accelerate their abilities to solve complex problems, to seize opportunities, to innovate, and to reap rewards.
There Are Basic Principles We Should Be Applying to Improve Our Capacities to Innovate
Peter Horne, one of Patty’s Pioneers, often reminds us that there’s a difference between complex problems and complicated problems. Complicated problems can be decomposed into smaller chunks and dealt with in sequence or in parallel. Complex problems are more systemic in nature. You have to tackle them as a whole integrated system. In outside innovation, we’ve learned that it’s important to get a lot of different perspectives from people with different skills and expertise (and mental models). We’ve also learned that the more open and transparent this process is, the faster and more productive are the cycles of insights, experimentation, application, and rework.
Robert Fritz, the master of the creative orientation, reminds us that problem-solving is a limited way to address any complex issue. If you focus on solving a problem, you are putting blinders on that keep you from the flashes of insight that lead to true creativity. Robert and other successful creators and innovators use structure to enhance creativity. They create what Robert calls “A Path of Least Resistance” to spawn creativity: Focus on the outcome you want to attain (including all of the qualities surrounding that outcome). Focus on the current reality – the ground truth, as others refer to it. Commit to achieving your goal, and take actions, learning and revising as you go.
Personally, I’ve learned a lot about addressing complex, systemic issues by watching the work of Mwalimu Musheshe’s organization in rural Uganda. URDT designs structures that make it the path of least resistance for people to improve their lives and their communities’ lives. The only “modern” technologies that seem to be required to make lasting change in peoples’ lives and communities in this third-world setting is radio. Community radio is the locals’ preferred tool for building creative capacity by engaging community members and stakeholders in identifying, debating, and addressing complex issues. Identify issues. Create a shared vision of the ideal outcome. Debate alternatives. Gather different points of view. Commit to take actions. And then take them, as you refine and adjust. Report back and keeping the process transparent as you go. Share the learnings and reflect on what works and what doesn’t.
The A, B, C's of Structuring Our Ability to Improve our Collective IQ
For internetworked organizations—for people who can easily and affordably avail themselves of the Internet—there’s also a robust body of proven practices that reminds us how to accelerate our capacity for innovation as a group of people. Many of the basic principles for “bootstrapping innovation” among people who are working together online (and offline) to address complex issues were invented and practiced by Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute when the Internet was in its infancy. At our recent Visionaries’ meeting, Christina Engelbart, Doug’s daughter, reminded us that her father’s life work revolved around helping groups of people tackle really complex issues. Doug and his team at SRI functioned as a “hot innovation team” for decades, inventing the tools they used, using those tools to do their collective work, and practicing a discipline of:
A: Focusing on the core capabilities required to reach your outcomes
B: Continuously improving your core capabilities by observing what works and what doesn’t, and inventing new practices
C: Monitoring, reflecting on, and improving your continuous improvement capabilities and sharing those learnings and insights with everyone else who is observing and improving B activities
This A, B, C model is just one of five key disciplines that Christina has codified from Doug Engelbart’s work. I find the A, B, C model to be a really useful way to approach any ongoing activity, both as individuals but particularly in groups. I like to think of them as different “hats” I’m wearing. I may be doing an activity that is core or critical. While I’m doing that activity, I’m wearing my “B” hat and noticing how I could be doing it better, and maybe talking and working with others to do so. Then, wearing our “C” hats, we collectively arrive at ideas and conclusions about better ways still to improve our capacity to help ourselves do both continuous improvement and to make creative leaps.
The more that our teams are firing on all three of these cylinders, the greater our collective capacity to innovate and to rise to the challenges that come our way. I really appreciated Christina’s presentation at our Visionaries meeting. It reminded me of the fascinating two days I spent interviewing Doug back in 1991 to really try to understand what he had been doing all these years and why it worked so well.
Christina refers to the five disciplines of Bootstrapping Innovation as techniques that you should use together to boost your “Collective IQ” as an organization or a team. “Some companies are better at working collectively to solve complex problems than others.” She used the example of BP’s fumbling to find a creative solution to a tough problem as way to begin the discussion about why it’s important for organizations to improve their Collective IQ. “The lesson of collective IQ is not so much that organizations with a high collective IQ are able to anticipate risk, but that they’re able to rise to the task of doing things well,” over and over again, including the ability to navigate externally and take advantage of boosting that collective IQ with input from others.
Read Ronni Marshak's article about Christina's presentation at our Spring Visionaries' meeting, as well as a description of how NMC--a community of leading edge universities, educational institutions, and museums--puts these principles into practice.