Complexity's Amazing Opportunity 


It's time to escape the tame corners of innovation 

Do you want to innovate with impact?  If so, you're likely to find that the solutions for today’s biggest challenges are rooted in complex adaptive systems.  These ecosystems of diverse actors, who dynamically collaborate with each other, are also at the heart of the most disruptive opportunities of our age.  

These systems are rooted in the same kind of messy collaboration that energizes great cities.  Untangling the web of possibilities within this space has become a key challenge facing today’s innovation leader ... because this is where real innovation impact can happen.  

Yet, there are surprisingly few suitable tools and little established craft for creating these big messy systems.  Up until now the difficulty of this complex creative space has justifiably scared away prudent innovators.   For many years they have pursued lower hanging fruit.    

Harvesting the Tame Corners

Early 20th Century innovators took advantage of large well defined engineering opportunities that were suited to reductionist strategies.  They built railroads, sky scrapers, utility systems and dams by braking down big complicated projects into discreet independent pieces.  

By mid-Century a new generation of innovators was focused on optimizing the performance of large factories and business operations with a series of small incremental improvements.   Led by the work of W.E. Deming, they transformed the performance manufacturing and other large scale operations with tiny incremental improvements. 

Most recently, the emergence of fast moving Greenfield technology opportunities from the web and mobile devices, launched a very different sort of innovation strategy.   This third generation of innovators mastered the art of lean product development, running fast moving pilots to test ideas and fail fast.   

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While there techniques are all very different, these innovators, the engineer, the incremental optimizer, and the product innovator have something in common.   If you plot their area of work on a graph that shows both the uncertainty surrounding the idea and the scale of the change, all three of the innovation models cling to a space along the axis.  These are the tame corner of innovation.     

Each form of innovation makes simplifying assumptions that make their work easier.  Reductionists assume they fully understand a problem and so can analyze it before beginning work.   The incremental innovator has the dual luxury of knowing the underlying system well (they zealously pursue operational data tracking), as well as avoiding unexpected effects by keeping their changes small.   Even the wildly creative lean product innovator makes assumptions, keeping the size of their pilots and prototypes small so that they can move quickly.   

These simplifying assumptions are not optional.  Each is the cost of being able to work in a tame corner and is at the heart of why each innovation methodology works. 

Opportunity in the Messy Middle

This leaves a big untapped area of opportunity and a source of potential creative threats.  Innovations that have lots of interconnected moving parts and substantial unknowns, uncertainty and change, fall in the large open space in the middle of the diagram.   

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This Messy Middle is where complex adaptive systems lie. They have a number of truly challenging features:

  • Diverse independent actors, each with varied skills
  • No boss - everyone needs incentives to act
  • Tangled connections with chaotic feedback loops
  • Dynamic change
  • Unavoidable unknowns and uncertainty
  • Path dependence - each choice changes the future

There's a reason the tame corners are so attractive.   No one in their right mind would work where the solutions are so messy and ill behaved.  Yet, the Messy Middle is also where some of the biggest opportunities, most intractable problems, and frightening threats live.  

The Messy Middle is the home to the complex systems we need to scale sophisticated innovations that go beyond trying to save the world with a mobile app.   They are also at the root of seemingly intractable problems like urban poverty or ecological threats.    These are problems that require an integrated collaborative response to build a new and different way of working together.   

Disruption lives here too.   The Fourth Industrial Revolution will increasingly tie together diverse technologies, people, and organizations in a dense web of technology enabled collaboration.  These transformations will sweep away incumbents in many industries.  The same complex systems that create unprecedented opportunity, will also be devastating threats.   

Time to Get Good at Complexity

For over a hundred years, we've successful worked in tame corners of the innovation space.  Now, its time to move into the "Messy Middle" and get good at using this complexity to our advantage.  

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This means developing new tools and methodologies.  Academic work has laid the foundation for hands-on practices, but functional approaches to the many innovation challenges associated with complex systems are still widely scattered.  Innovating in the Messy Middle is harder than Tame Corner innovation.   There are few opportunities for simplifying assumptions and difficult challenges like evolving a complex system with incomplete knowledge in a changing environment must be confronted head on.   

Still this is where the action is.  Organizations who lead in this space will choose to invest in ambitious strategies rooted in complex collaborative systems.   They will also build their capabilities to shape and realize these solutions, including engaging new breeds of innovators who act more like choreographers than project managers.      

As a professional who has been doing hands on work in this space long before it was obvious or trendy, I can confidently make two predictions.  The first, is that the journey to intentionally innovate with complex adaptive systems will be long and hard.  The second prediction is that (in the not too distant future) only those who have learned how to innovate with a new level of impact will still be around to talk about the exciting future ahead. 

- Dan