Helping the Messy Middle Come of Age in 2019

7 Ambitious Systems Innovation Initiatives for the Coming Year

How do we shape the world to be a better place when wicked problems and complex systems are at the root of the hardest challenges and most exciting opportunities? Last year I left ThoughtWorks to set up Practical Clarity and focus my attention on this very question. I was rewarded with a whirlwind of chances to see complex systems rise up and stake claim to innovation’s center stage.  In domains as diverse as Commercial Digital Transformation, Humanitarian Aid, Environmental Activism, and the Smart City Revolution, there have been calls for more powerful forms innovation.  

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I spent my entire career pushing at one aspect or another of systems innovation, often as the lone voice in a room.  It is exciting to finally see a broader recognition that innovation needs to grow up and solve harder problems.    

With so much happening last year, it naturally raises the question of what advocates of system innovation should be doing in 2019.   I’ve been in the habit of using the end of year holidays to step back and consider the prior year and look at opportunities waiting for bold action in the year ahead.  This year, in system innovation’s moment of opportunity, there are seven candidate initiatives that particularly excite me. They are surprisingly diverse challenges, variously considering ways to design complex solutions in a messy world, manage truly agile organizations, and define new creative roles.  

Yet, they are all centered on the mastering same core skill, complex systems innovation, or what Ian Gray and I called, working the Messy Middle.  The Messy Middle is where innovator’s tackle the transformation of complex systems in an uncertain and changing world.  It’s an exciting opportunity space, where big problems can be addressed by powerful solutions.  Until now it has been difficult to access with conventional innovation techniques. My hope is that 2019 is a turning point, and that work on these seven initiatives can help complex system innovation become a rich new source of creative change.     

1) See One Big Problem: Join Efforts Across Domains

Few things change the game like seeing a problem differently.   Over the last decade, I’ve been looking at the places where innovation failed to rise to important challenges.  The deeper this exploration went into the challenges faced by different sectors, the more distinct innovation gaps seemed to emerge.   

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Business executives saw ever shorter cycles of innovation, shrinking their opportunities into brief “shark fins” so that even the fastest moving product designers were haunted by the threat of rapid obsolescence.  Sponsors of Humanitarian innovations were frustrated for a different reason, their most promising pilot innovations failed to scale(the baby bunny problem).  Meanwhile, environmental activists looked at big unsolved “wicked” problemsthreatening climate and species survival and asked why their most complex challenges seemed immune to impactful innovation.  Even the emergence of disruptive Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies raised questions about how today’s innovators, with their focus on product innovations and status quo improvements, could capitalize on major system disruption

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When viewed as distinct challenges, these creative shortcomings seem overwhelming, problem after problem with no end in sight.  Yet, what if rapid obsolescence, failure to scale, wicked problems, and disruption actually arise from the same underlying system innovation challenges?  Then the picture looks much different.  There is an opportunity to address seemingly distinct big challenges with a shared suite of system innovation techniques.  

We could all work together, building the tools needed to solve what is ultimately the same big problem.

A meeting in the first week of the year helped demonstrate the potential for shared ownership of complex system innovation’s development.  I was able to join in a multi-sector conversation that examined the issues associated with evidence gathering in both the Aid and Conservation.  While these are different fields they share common system innovation needs, which helped expose new insights regarding the use of evidence for complex system change.  In 2019 we have good reason to work across big problem spaces and subject domains to drive systems innovation to the next level.    

2) Scale Scaling Skills: Get Serious About Mastering Journeys to Scale

One of the most promising areas for substantive progress in complex systems innovation is the scaling of innovations.  A solid foundation has been laid, which can now be used to make a step change in the capacity to scale innovations.  

In 2015, as a contribution to the World Humanitarian Summit, Ian Gray and I looked at the persistent problem innovations faced when going to scale.  We concluded that even promising pilots failed to scale because innovators and their sponsors outside the commercial sector vastly underestimated the complexity of the systems needed support their idea.    There was a systems innovation gap, a trip through the Messy Middle, between a promising pilot and a consistently replicable invention. 

Since then, a number of innovation programs in the Aid Sector have focused on the scaling challenge, working to create examples complete, consistent and sustainable innovations.  In 2018 the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) issued a broad assessment of current scaling challenges, which will be followed in early 2019 by a Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI) scaling framework developed by Lesley Bourns and me. 

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The GAHI framework breaks the scaling challenge into four major parts; Value Creation, Difficult Barriers, Sustainability, and Contextual Variation.   Using this model, it is possible to structure and compare much of the one-off learning that has happened since 2015, consolidating progress on a host of different aspects of the scaling challenge: 

1.    Define Varied Paths to Scale:  This work can include poorly understood challenges such as scaling product innovations in resource poor environments and scaling complex system solutions.  

2.    Solve the Hard Problems:  Some specific barriers to scale are particularly difficult to navigate, such as finding business models when the users of the innovation lack funds.  

3.    Integrate Supporting Tools:  There are a growing number of scaling tools for jobs such as assessing scaling readiness.   It should now be possible to see how these overlap with one another, where there are gaps, and how new tools might be developed.    

3) Close the Theory Gap: Make Academics Actionable

It may seem like the theoretical work in systems should provide a similar foundation for practice building.  Surprisingly, this has been less true.  Systems thinking has deep academic and theoretical roots, with fundamental insights about the nature of systems (chaotic behavior, fractal scale, emergent behaviors) and modeling (game theory, simulations, neural networks). Ironically, this rich academic foundation has been slow to translate into useful on the ground tools and practicesin support of systems innovators.   

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It’s a damning (but all too common) indictment when clever simulation models are greeted with a furrowed brow from on the ground practitioners, puzzlement followed by the question 

 “OK … but what do I do with this?”  Closing the gap between innovation practitioners, who measure their success in terms of actual change in the real world, and academic specialists who value their ability to generate insights, would provide a valuable opportunity to amplify the impact of systems innovation.  Answering three practical questions in 2019 could help bridge the gap between theory and action:    

  1.  Useful Models– What models (formal or informal) are possible given the limits of real world information?

  2.  Practical Application– How are the results of these models applied to solve real world innovation challenges?

  3.  Actionable Visualization– What is the best way to visualize complex systems insights in the service of on the ground innovators? 

It may be necessary to clear some space to truly leverage this work.  Some widely adopted tools that have been associated with system thinking (such as linear Theories of Change) may need to be given a more limited role if they are to be replaced with more sophisticated views of systems and systems behaviors.   

4) Assemble Smart Cities: Unbundle and Do LEGO’s

A great deal is being written about the coming transformation of global systems with Fourth Industrial Revolution technologiessuch as IOT, artificial intelligence, and robotics.  It’s an exciting prospect. Yet, thus far, promised transformations like Smart Cities have been little more than technical upgrades to existing services … better access to sidewalk WiFi, lower cost street light operations, or fancier tolling schemes.  This is not a digital transformation.  It is hardly more than a digital paint job. 

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If new technology is to be boldly disruptive, we need to help breaks ties that bind status quo systems and reassemble them in creative new ways.  The magic of a Smart City will come from the systems innovator’s ability to unbundle and reassemble services. 

MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld expounds on the power that comes from treating the world like a box of LEGO’s. Seeing a city as interconnecting pieces allows us to flexibly rearchitect wide swaths of the world in disruptive new ways. It’s a powerful concept, but how do we apply this unbundling and reassembly as an intentional form of innovation?  How do sponsors foster this level of change?  How are systems unbundled and who reassembles the newly empowered pieces?  How should system transformation methodologies work at a city level?  How is fairness assured and how are unexpected dangers avoided?  How do assembled systems continue to evolve?   

So, while I’m excited about the creative potential (and worried about the associated disruption), this type of radical system re-invention requires a lot of skills which we have yet to master.  This is an area where our prior work in system’s innovation can help drive pioneering experiments in 2019.   

5) Organizational Collaboration: Beyond a Merely Adaptive Enterprise  

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Another form of complex system assembly that is receiving significant attention is the creation of collaborative efforts among independent organizations.  Assembling of networks of actors is being proposed as a disruptive strategy for reinventing the Aid Sector, reimagining the roles of NGO’s in light of new technologies such as Cash Programming (this is where debit cards are provided for use in local markets rather than shipping food and goods half way across the world).  

This is a level of systems innovation that pushes organization design beyond the more narrowly defined innovations in Adaptive Management.   Adaptive management makes use of feedback loops inside an organization to select and manage projects based on real time insights from the outside world. It is a good step forward, but for most organizations their core capabilities remain the same, even if they are better able to apply changing insights to projects.  

Collaborative networks push the bounds or organizational design quite a bit further.   Here, the capabilities of different organizations are linked together in a flexible complex systemthat generate value through the efforts multiple organizations.   Here the LEGO blocks are institutions, some old, some new, and some transformed for to take advantage of the new opportunity. 

It’s brings potentially big original solutions to hard complex problems.  While collaborative organizations offer exceptional power to the systems innovator, they comes with a great many new demands. The loosely woven network of institutions it must still be able to set a shared direction, architect a sustainable relationship among actors, establish trust, integrate operations and respond to change.    

Working for Save the Children UK, Hannah Reichart and I are collaborating on a paper that seeks to provide a MECE view of practical strategies for structuring collaborative networksof organizations.   The paper should be released in the first half of 2019, which should provide ample opportunity to explore applications with ambitious new system collaborations in Aid and other sectors.   

6) Construct an Innovation Ecosystem: Innovation 4.0 

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an ecosystem to support an innovator … and not just any ecosystem.  Over the last hundred years, three major innovation methodologies have been developed in support of our modern economy.   

  •   1st Generation - Reductionist Engineering

  •  2nd Generation - Incremental Improvement

  •  3rd Generation – Lean Product Exploration

  •  4th Generation – Complex Systems Innovation

Each past innovation technique built out a tailored ecosystem with supporting tools,institutions and roles.  These ecosystems that span multiple domains, including financing tools, investment portfolios, project management, organizational design, training, technical tools, measurement, and even ethics, tailored to support the needs of the specific methodology.  

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Today, the fourth generation of innovation, Complex Systems Innovation, requires its own ecosystem of supporting services that recognizes the complexity of the work and the long journey needed to evolve sustainable systems based solutions.  

There is surprisingly little that can be directly reused from the ecosystems of prior methodologies. As a result, the challenge in 2019 will be to build an ecosystem for complex innovation from the ground up. This will require innovations to support innovators, pioneering new work in fields as diverse as finance, organizational design, and ethics.   

I have developed a soon to be released paper from the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI) that outlines the scale of this work and raises a call to action for broad based progress in 2019.   GAHI will be leveraging this ecosystem model as a way to structure its diverse activities in the coming year, providing a global foundation of for this work in the Aid Sector.  There is reason to believe that ecosystem building progress in Aid can be transferred over to other domains where systems innovation is a growing concern (see project 1).            

7) Arise Choreographers! Empower Systems Innovation’s Standard Bearers

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This final project has the deepest hold on my heart and my passion.  Each generation of innovation has its standard bearer and regards particular talents as particularly valuable.   In reductionist innovation, the technically brilliant engineer is highly regarded, while in lean exploratory innovation, the search is for an unusually creative designer.  

Systems Innovation is in critical need of its own central creative figure.  This person must provide a holistic view of complex challenges and help shape a systems based solution that addresses them.  They must be able to work with diverse stakeholders, driving action through effective storytelling, and guiding the evolution of the transformation through a series of complex pivots.   It is a role that demands big picture thinking, broad based expertise across multiple domains, and a flexible approach to shaping work with others.  

The commercial sector has little in the way of formal roles that reflect this big picture architectural leadership of creative change.   As a result, its necessary to look in the Arts to find a good example of this kind of big picture creativity.  Systems innovation needs to formalize the role of a systems “choreographer” who can be seen as an essential contributor in every complex system transformation.   

In 2019, while other aspects of the methodology of systems transformation and its supporting ecosystem are taking big steps forward, it will be equally important to establish a place for the Choreographer’s craft, explaining what they do and why it is so important.  Since there is hardly an army of these uniquely talented people at hand for hiring, it will be necessary to recruit, train and support this new set of talents inside organizations that have very little experience with this kind of multi-skill professional.   

Innovations in Innovation Don't Just Happen

Having spent years pushing and pulling against the shortcomings of older models of innovation, I have been stripped of any idealism I might have about innovation naturally evolving in response to new challenges. Each generational advance in innovation has been the subject of hard thought and harder work.

It won't be any different in 2019. Complex systems innovation is a powerful tool that addresses the world's most pressing challenges. It's a difficult but rewarding form of creativity whose time has come, but this means its time for those of us who want to be the choreographers of complex system transformations to step up and help innovation in the Messy Middle come of age.