Rules of behavior for emergent experimentation

August 18, 2008 — 6 Comments

I am a big fan of a culture of experimentation as a driver of innovation. I believe it creates the divergence necessary to create the best, and least incremental, options. I also think that if an organization relies on top down direction to achieve that experimentation then it risks missing many of the most interesting opportunities. Steve Jobs aside, large companies have not exhibited a good track record when it comes to picking the right bets and I think that is because they started with too meager a set of choices.

I was wondering what the rule set might be for encouraging bottom-up or emergent experimentation such that you end up with better innovation options without the chaos or diffusion of “letting a thousand flowers bloom”. Here is my take:

1. Assume the best ideas emerge from the organizational ecosystem, including all stake-holders not just employees.
2. Set conditions so that those in the ecosystem who are most likely to be stimulated by changing external factors (technology, business factors, consumer needs, strategic threats or opportunities) are the ones who are best situated and motivated to have new ideas.
3. Do not favor ideas based on the author. Favor the relevance of the content.
4. Do favor ideas that create organizational resonance. Indeed demand new ideas gain a following, even if small and vocal, before giving organizational support.
5. Use the resources of senior leadership (the top-down bit) to cultivate, to tend, prune and harvest ideas.
6. Articulate an over-arching purpose so that the ecosystem has a context in which to innovate without top down control. (John Mackie has done a great job of this at Whole Foods)

None of these rules is necessarily easy to apply, especially for a top-down oriented organization, but I think they might achieve some pretty spectacular results. What do you think?

Tim Brown

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6 responses to Rules of behavior for emergent experimentation

  1. Jane Fulton Suri August 21, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    “Articulate an over-arching purpose so that the ecosystem has a context in which to innovate…”
    This one interests me in the sense of emphasizing the business ecosystem itself as THE context in which to innovate…a particular spin on that is to encourage individuals representing one stakeholder within the system (say the front-line providers of a service) to focus their insight/ideation/problem-solving not upon their own needs but on the needs of OTHER individual stakeholders in the same system (say the people who’re doing maintenance, or—as we tend to more commonly do—the people who’re enjoying the service). This is a way of ensuring that ideas have relevance, and resonance beyond the originators of ideas and reinforce the health of the ecosystem.

  2. IMHO, Bottom’s up innovation is best possible if there is an environment of freedom, where a lot of people believe and like to engage in the process of innovation. Once people start enjoying the process of thinking outwards, of thinking weird and of think beyond their constraints, that is when that collaborative innovation is best possible. Any creation, according to me, is an individualistic process. So for a team to be innovative, they need to function like our brain. We have different thoughts in our brain but in the end the brain is able to come to a outlook, confused or consistent, but an outlook, nonetheless. In team we have to function like that, believing that each member is part of the same whole (the brain), you agree, you disagree, but u cant run away, so in the end there has to be the final outlook which is the result of all the various directions that the individual members went into, and each thought needs to be see as a gust of wind that helped in reinforcing or hindering the direction of the outlook.

  3. ‘Use the resources of senior leadership (the top-down bit) to cultivate, to tend, prune and harvest ideas’

    This is interesting for me. I’m a graphic designer and in my opinion and experience, being creative is a mindset. You should always ask yourself ‘how could I do this in a new way?’ ‘how can I solve this problem in a different way that I’m used to?’ Find the people that are doing this question to themselves and you have found your change agents. Give credit to their ideas; let them try. From their experience, try to have this change agents ‘teach’ that mindset, and the results that come from it, to other people working in the organization. You’ll then be heading to rule 6.

  4. The second rule, ‘Set conditions so that those in the ecosystem who are most likely to be stimulated by changing external factors (technology, business factors, consumer needs, strategic threats or opportunities) are the ones who are best situated and motivated to have new ideas.’ is incongruous with the other rules, as it cannot be applied generically and needs to be tailored to gain value.

    In some cases, the party most affected by ecosystem changes may be the end customer, and to empower the customer to create ideas and foster innovation may require a drive towards open-sourcing, and (potentially) allowing access to proprietary information. However, in other situations, marketing or front-line customer service may be the fulcrum for change, how do you motivate to both take advantage of the change, while remaining connected & leveraging and feeding the overall organization? Each approach must navigate hurdles.

    I am struggling to define a process, or create a template, to make Rule 2 applicable and relevant to any/all practitioners. Also, how do you marry the rapid/iterative evolution with the fundamental need for long term strategy and planning?

    A bit of rambling, my apologies!

  5. Hi Tim,

    Very nice post, love the concepts. One comment; perhaps these are “strategic” rules though, in the sense that they guide overall attitudes and not specific guides for actions (i.e. “behavior”)?

    We’ve been experimenting with rules for behavior in turbulent environments in our group at the Humanitarian Futures Programme (“tactical rules”, you might call them, in the sense of “what do I do now?” when faced with a confusing or rapidly changing emergency environment). Our current version is something like this:

    1. Listening to what went before, find the pattern, and then match it.
    2. Vary the pattern incrementally and experimentally.
    3. See how others respond.
    4. Change everything every now and then.
    5. Repeat the cycle.

    More like jazz and less like organizational planning but it does seem to work in principle!

  6. You make a terrific point, but with all due respect, I think your approach sells the whole concept of emergence a little short. Emergent phenomena virtually define the richness of our world, and indeed humanity itself. The human mind, consciousness, and even creative thought are all emergent phenomena of the human brain. So I would say that the “best ideas” emerge from a number of sources, not just the “organizational mind”, or the minds of organizational stakeholders. For example, the science of memetics identifies dynamics of meme replication, selection, and retention that generate a great number of “great ideas”, which may or may not become “implanted” in the minds of an organization’s stakeholders. (I maintain that memes themselves are emergent phenomena of both human social and cultural systems and the system of Information, as defined by Information Theory.)
    I also think digging into the causal dynamics of “top down” (organizational purpose, values, mission, etc.) and “bottom up” (organizational structure, decision-making processes, etc.) emergence would add some useful tools to the process of designing a system to generate “great ideas”.

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