Complexity, Innovation and Fear


“If you can’t get over your fear of the stuff that’s working, then I think you need to give up and do something else” – Seth Godin

Seth, who I’ve been celebrating this week, had it right. Many of us fear the stuff that works, because in a complex world, innovation is what often works to solve problems instead of the same way we’ve always done things. In a period of accelerated change, information abundance and overload, and hyperconnectedness, the fear that one is losing their place is palpable when you speak to those over the age of 40, and many below that age.

Harold Kushner has written much on the concept of fear and the ways it influences our lives. In a recent talk in Toronto, Rabbi Kurshner told the audience a story about how his young nephew taught him how to access a computer file and the implications for an age where the young mentor the old and how the older people in society feel left behind by technology. Being left behind, ignored, or rejected is a primal driver of fear. Another sage (albeit a ficitional one) said it best:

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering — Yoda

Indeed, what Kushner was speaking about was how fear leads to anger and hate and the suffering that it causes. My colleague Izzeldin Abuelaish, his work, charity and campaign is all about removing fear and promoting understanding for peace. In an interview with TVO he spoke to this issue how the fear and hate associated with a complex issue like the Middle East relations cannot be made to interfere with our fundamental knowledge of what it means to be human. And being human is increasingly complex.

The Middle East, new technology, and a rapidly changing society all reflect a more complex world. Complexity, by its very nature, produces unpredictability and instability. Yet it is in complexity, the boundaries between systems and ideas, and channeling diversity that we innovate. Innovation, by definition, is doing something new to produce value. New means challenging the status quo by default. Resistance to ‘new’ is so easy to see everywhere and the lesson of Darwin and paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey taught us is that a failure to adapt results in extinction. So if we do the math, complexity leads to fear and fear prevents innovation and that leads to extinction.

It is why people like Seth Godin write “Linchpin” and speak on standing out as the means of survival. It’s why Peter Diamandis had such trouble raising the funds to support the X-Prize from organizations, yet found dozens of teams interested in competing for it(a great set of stories about the Prize and innovation are included in his talk on TVO’s: Big Ideas). In both cases, the audience is the individual and small teams or tribes as Seth Godin puts it.

From this it seems that there are a few courses of action that won’t ignore complexity (contributing to what management theorist and systems thinker Russell Ackoff described as ‘doing the wrong thing righter’ ), help spur innovation, reduce fear and hate as a result.

I suggest five things:

1. Teach systems thinking and complexity science in schools, the community, in the media. By understanding how things come together, the unintended consequences and opportunities that emerge from systems, the complexity is reduced or at least made less mysterious in a manner that invokes fear.

2. Provide people with opportunities to develop the analytical skills to make sense of complexity. John Mighton’s work at JUMP Math is a great example. He teaches people to enjoy mathematics and how to learn about it and use it everyday. Math and number fear is (in my opinion) one of the most significant barriers to people understanding complexity. If you fear numbers, you’ll hate math and statistics, and you’ll not want to learn about things like stochasticity (randomness) and risk.

3. This includes working together — experts and non-experts alike — to create the tools necessary to anticipate change. Having a sense of what might reasonably happen (using the aforementioned skills) reduces anxiety. As Kushner recalls, people who are about to die don’t fear death, they lament the life they didn’t live because of fear of the unknown.

4. Nurture individuals and teams because those are where real relationships form. Networking large organizations is fine, but it is in building relationships between people and the small tribes they form that will create the trust and goodwill to allow people to be open and transparent. And this transparency and openness reduces fear.

5. Encourage people to use – and learn from — tools that help people form relationships, maintain them. Social media tools that can’t break are ones that allow people to try and fail and learn. Without a culture that supports relationships and encourage wild attempts that might fail, innovation is unlikely to follow or be sustained.

Anything missing from this? Anything off the mark?

Don’t let fear dissuade you from innovating and making this better and different.

2 Comments on “Complexity, Innovation and Fear

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