Tag: risk

complexityinnovationpsychology

Jaded: Whether You Are a Plant or a Stone Makes All the Difference

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An attempt to innovate – do something new to produce value — is always fraught with risk and a high likelihood that things won’t go as planned, which can leave people jaded toward future efforts. Whether that metaphor of jade is one of a rock (static) or a plant (growth) makes all the difference. 

Innovation is hot. Innovation is necessary. Innovation is your competitive advantage. Innovate or die.

You’ve probably heard one or all of these phrases or one of the myriad variants of them out there. Innovation is a hot word. To innovate is to transform new thinking into new value, but it is used euphemistically to represent all kinds of ‘hot’ things without appropriate framing. It’s not just doing something different, it’s about producing something new that improves on the situation at hand, even if the solution might actually be an old idea re-introduced.

A recent article for the online version of Harvard Business Review suggests that many companies are just giving up, ceding the ‘innovation’ space to large firms with a reputation for innovation. Why? One of the reasons cited is that the developing social and technological change has created a situation where “many firms seem to be unable to keep up with the pace at which this development is unfolding.”

The painful experience of failure

Another reason might be the problem of failure. Failure has become another cool word in the language of business and social innovation (even, government) to the point of being fetishized as something noble. The issue with failure is not just accepting that it can happen, but learning from it and acting on that learning. It also means understanding what failure is and whether an outcome is even best described in terms like “success” and “failure” . Too often in innovation, particularly social innovation, we actually don’t know what success looks like so how is it that we can use the term failure so readily?

Failure is a word with enormous negative cultural baggage. Despite all the positive rhetoric of failure, corporations, social enterprises and governments are judged on their ability to deliver what is expected of them. Expectations are really the key here. If you’re a corporation that promises to deliver a certain rate of return on investment over a specific time period, you’re going to be held to task for that. We can speak of failure positively all we’d like, but try explaining the ‘learning’ outcomes to a group of angry shareholders?

Politicians don’t get judged on their ability to manage complexity, they are judged by making and keeping promises — even if those promises are based on (overly) simplistic ways of viewing complex problems. As we entangle ourselves with more complex problems, the promise of a simple solution will be harder to come by. Yet, it’s that hope for the solution that is what ultimately gets us. As I once read in a newsletter advertising an online dating service in a very cheeky manner:

It’s not the rejection that kills you, it’s the hope.

It’s actually quite true. If you don’t expect to succeed, “failure” isn’t really that bad.

Lowered expectations, risk avoidance & path dependencies

When you’re jaded, you tend to lower your expectations. The analogy of online dating above is also an apt descriptor for ways in which lowered expectations changes the very game of innovation in real ways in people’s lives. As divorce rates approach 50%, it is becoming common that many people are starting over sometime in their 30’s and 40’s and trying, once again, to find love. What’s interesting in terms of dating is that, particularly if you’ve been dating a little, you face two big issues: 1) you’re a bit cautious about what you do or say because you know that things might not last and you want to conserve your energy and 2) you’ve become accustomed to the way you do things on your own.

The result might be less adventurousness, more conservative thinking about the choice of partner, a greater willingness to settle for what is, rather than what could be (risk avoidance). An established pattern of living might also predispose you to looking for partners who are a lot like you, which maintains a level of consistency (path dependence). An argument can be made that this is more about knowing yourself and your preferences than being set in your ways, but there is a fine line between that and resistance to change.

This is exactly what we see in organizations around innovation.

They have tried innovation before, it’s failed to deliver what they expected (because they probably set their expectations poorly, not realizing that the outcomes of innovation could be something other than they had designed for), and now don’t want to try. Or rather, they don’t want to try enough. This is why we see so many organizations trumpet themselves as innovative, when what they are really doing is the most basic, simplistic forms of innovation. Rather than a moonshot, they are looking to simply move the yardsticks just a little.

Plant vs stone

Jade is both a plant and a stone. A jade plant is a solid, semi-broad leafed plant that is well suited to dry climates and a variety of light situations, making it a great houseplant. It’s adaptive, easily transplantable and hearty. Jade, as a stone, is relatively soft and while it is also adaptable, once carved into a shape, it’s no longer going to change.

The jade / jaded metaphor is designed to consider the ways in which we approach developing our innovation potential. A jade plant is still firm, but flexible. It grows and changes over time, but isn’t as free flowing as others. The jade plant offers a useful metaphor for ensuring that lessons learned from past actions inform future strategy, but not to the point where the fear of risk calcifies the organization into a static state, unable to change.

A plant exists largely because it has a steady stream of nutrients, water, sunlight and a reasonable stability of growing conditions, yet conditions that can change and will change over time. This consistency as well as requisite variety (in systems terms) is what keeps a plant alive and thriving. The same is true for an organization. Ongoing, steady innovation, consistency over time and the occasional change in conditions to keep things on their toes (and used to adaptation) are all a part of what makes an organization or individual innovative. Build in a regular practice, become a mindful organization (or practitioner) and consider changes in the way you speak about innovation to yourself and others.

Bruce Lee would advocate that his students become like water. Innovators? They should become more like plants for that water.

Image Credit: Jade Plant by Andrew Rivett used under Creative Commons License. Thanks for sharing Andrew!

social innovationsocial systemssystems thinking

Lost together

Lost and found

A post certainty world

Doing new things to create social value means going into the great unknown, yet our fear of being lost need not prevent us from innovating, wisely and sustainably. Instead of being lost alone, we can be lost together. 

I’ve heard it all so many times before

It’s all a dream to me now
A dream to me now
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together

– Blue Rodeo (Lost Together)

Humans have real problems with uncertainty. Risk mitigation is an enormous field of work within business, government and politics and permeates decision making in our organizations. It’s partly this reason that our politicians too often speak so cryptically to the point of basically uttering nonsense – because they want to avoid the risk of saying something that will hurt them. The alternative perhaps is to spout so much untruth that it no longer matters what you say, because others will create messages about you.

Thankfully, we are still — and hopefully into the future — in a world where most of what organizations do is considered and evaluated with some care to the truth. ‘Truth’ or facts are much easier to deal with in those systems where we can generate the kind of evidence that enable us to make clear decisions based on replicable, verifiable and defensible research. Ordered systems where there is a cause-and-effect relationship that is (usually) clear, consistent and observable are those where we can design interventions to mitigate risk with confidence.

Risky options

There are four approaches to risk mitigation.

  1. Risk Acceptance involves awareness of what risks are present within the system and establishing strategy and an organizational culture where the nature, type and potential consequences of risks are (largely) known, accepted and lived with.
  2. Risk Avoidance takes the opposite approach and seeks to steer operations away from activities where risk is limited.
  3. Risk Limitation seeks to curtail and mitigate the effects of risk where possible and often involves contingency planning and balancing activities with higher levels of uncertainty with areas of greater confidence and certainty.
  4. Risk Transference involves finding ways to offload risk to a third party. An example can be found in many partnerships between organizations of different sizes or types where one is able to absorb certain risks while others cannot for various reasons and the activities allow for one partner to take lead on an activity that isn’t feasible for another to do so.

Within social innovation — those activities involving public engagement, new thinking and social benefit — there are few opportunities for #2, plenty for #1 and #3 and a growing number for #4.

Risk is a core part of innovation. To innovate requires risking time, energy, focus and other resources toward the attempt at something new to produce a valued alternative to the status quo. For many human service organizations and funders, these resources are so thinly spread and small in abundance that the idea of considering risk seems like a risk itself. Yet, the real problem comes in assuming that one can choose whether or not to engage risk. Unless you’re operating in a closed system that has relatively few changing elements to it, you’re exposed to risk by virtue of being in the system. To draw on one of my favourite quotes from the author Guiseppe di Lampedusa:

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

So even keeping things away from risk involves risk because if the world around you is changing the system changes with it and so, too does your position in it. If this makes you feel lost, you’re not alone. Many organizations (individuals, too) are struggling with figuring out where they fit in the world. If you want evidence of this consider the growing calls for skilled knowledge workers at the same time we are seeing a crisis among those with a PhD — those with the most knowledge (of certain sorts) — in the job market.

Community of flashlights

There is a parable of the drunkard who loses his keys on his way home at night and searches for them under the streetlight not because that’s where he lost them, but because it’s easier to see that spurred something called the Streetlight Effect. It’s about the tendency to draw on what we know and what we have at our disposal to frame problems and seek to solve them, even if they are the wrong tools — a form of observation bias in psychology. Streetlights are anchored, stable means of illuminating a street within a certain range – a risk zone, perhaps — but remain incomplete solutions.

Flashlights on the other hands have the same limitations (a beam of light), are less powerful, but are adaptive. You can port a flashlight or torch and aim it to where you want the light to shine. They are not as powerful as a streetlight in terms of luminosity, but are far more nimble. However, if you bring more than one flashlight together, all of a sudden the power of the light is extended. This is the principle behind many of the commercial LED systems that are in use. Small numbers of lights brought together, each using low energy, but collectively providing a powerful, adaptive lighting system

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This same principle can apply to organizations seeking to make change. Like an LED flashlight, they need a housing to hold and focus the lights. This can be in the form of a backbone organization such as those advocated in collective impact strategies. It can also be a set of principles or simple rules that provide a set of guides for organizations operating independently to follow, which will stimulate a consistent pattern of activity when applied, allowing similar, focused action on the same target at a distance.

This latter approach differs from collective impact, which is a top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously and is a good means of focusing on larger, macro issues such as poverty reduction, climate change and city-building. It is an approach that holds potential for working within these larger issues on smaller, more dynamic ones such as neighbourhood building, conservation actions within a specific region, and workplace health promotion. In both cases the light analogy can hold and they need not be done exclusive of one another.

Let there be light

A flashlight initiative requires a lot of things coming together. It can be led by individuals making connections between others, brokering relationships and building community. It requires a vision that others can buy into and an understanding of the system (it’s level of complexity, structure and history). This understanding is what serves as the foundation for the determination of the ‘rules’ of the system, those touch points, attractors, leverage points and areas of push and pull that engage energy within a system (stay tuned to a future post for more detailed examples).

Much of the open-source movement is based on this model. This is about creating that housing for ideas to build and form freely, but with constraints. It’s a model that can work when collective impact is at a scale too large for an organization (or individual) to adequately envision contribution, but an alternative to going alone or relying only on the streetlight to find your way.

You might be lost, but with a flashlight you’ll be lost together and may just find your way.

Image credits: Author (Cameron Norman)