Innovation and Designing for Emergence: NeoDeMarconoian Thought

People look to me and say
Is the end near, when is the final day?
What’s the future of mankind?
How do I know, I got left behind

Everyone goes through changes
Looking to find the truth
Don’t look at me for answers
Don’t ask me, I don’t know. –Ozzy Osbourne

The more I try to learn, the more I have to agree with Ozzy–don’t ask me–I don’t know. Yet, I recently came across a fascinating innovation article that proposed a new approach: instead of designing a single solution, we should focus on creating the conditions that allow for the emergence of multiple solutions.

The current state, dare I say the zeitgeist of innovation in the military is building things, processes, or improvements in doctrine or strategy.  Yet as we face the complexity of strategic competition it seems we need more people with more diversity from a myriad of backgrounds pondering issues and situations.  I ponder small, intimate, serendipitous gatherings at a pub or cafe on topics of mutual interest as a way to get to impactful ideas in which we can begin to innovate around. 

Of course I love the ideas, but the simple questions—HOW immediately springs to mind.  Implementing this concept in a large bureaucracy such as the US Department of Defense is challenging, but I believe this is exactly what we aim to achieve with our innovation accelerator, AUiX (Air University’s Innovation Accelerator).

One of the key elements of this approach is emergence, where complex systems exhibit behaviors and properties that are greater than the sum of their individual parts. At Air University, we have a unique advantage in that we have a diverse student population of up to 200,000 graduates annually, ranging from cadets to colonels—airmen to chiefs.

As part of the Department of the Air Force (DAF), it’s essential that we tap into this brain trust to tackle complex challenges and find innovative solutions.

Designing for Emergent Conditions 

To design for the emergence of multiple solutions instead of a specific one, there are several steps we might follow. First, it is important to clearly define the problem and understand its constraints and requirements. Second, identifying the underlying conditions such as social, cultural, economic or political factors that contribute to the problem is essential. Third, exploring multiple perspectives from stakeholders and experts in related fields can provide a better understanding of the conditions that need to be addressed. Fourth, fostering a culture of experimentation and exploring diverse solutions can create an environment where multiple solutions can emerge and be tested. Finally, iterating and refining solutions based on feedback from stakeholders and results from testing can lead to more effective solutions that address the underlying conditions of the problem. By following this approach, innovative and effective solutions can emerge to address complex challenges.

Emergence of many solutions for several reasons:

  1. Diverse perspectives: Quality relationships allow for the sharing of diverse perspectives and experiences. This leads to a better understanding of the problem and the conditions that need to be addressed.
  2. Collaboration: Trusted relationships enable collaboration between stakeholders, which can lead to the emergence of new ideas and innovative solutions.
  3. Increased learning: By building quality relationships with stakeholders, individuals and organizations can learn from each other, share knowledge and expertise, and build on each other’s strengths.
  4. Greater trust: Building trust in relationships can lead to more open and honest communication, which can help to address difficult issues and find common ground.

To foster more, quality, and trusted relationships, individuals and organizations can take several steps and as such I ponder:

  1. Be open and honest: How do we establish more open and honest communications from the outset to build trust and promote understanding?
  2. Listen actively: How do we find opportunities to utilize active listening to demonstrate respect for other people’s perspectives and experiences?
  3. Be transparent: How might we be totally transparent about intentions, objectives, and decision-making processes to build trust and foster accountability.
  4. Collaborate: How can we actively seek out opportunities for collaboration and working together on common goals to build relationships and in turn lead to shared success.
  5. Invest in relationships: How can we Invest time and resources into building relationships with stakeholders that we know can lead to stronger connections and greater trust over time?

Relationships as Catalyzers of Complex System Change

Developing the catalyzers of complex system change, such as government, to value relationships as a key outcome requires a deliberate and intentional approach—some steps I propose:

  1. Cultivate a culture of trust and collaboration: Leaders must create a culture that values trust, collaboration, and relationship building. This can involve setting clear expectations, promoting open communication, and investing in relationship-building activities.
  2. Build strong partnerships: Leaders should actively seek out opportunities to build partnerships with stakeholders and other organizations. This can involve identifying common goals, sharing knowledge and expertise, and working together to address complex problems.
  3. Engage stakeholders: Leaders must engage stakeholders in a meaningful way throughout the change process. This can involve seeking feedback, co-creating solutions, and involving stakeholders in decision-making processes.
  4. Measure relationship outcomes: We should measure relationship outcomes, such as trust and collaboration, as key indicators of success. This can involve developing metrics to track progress, monitoring changes over time, and using this information to inform decision-making (not at all easy).
  5. Foster a learning culture: Leaders should foster a culture of learning and continuous improvement. This can involve promoting experimentation, reflecting on successes and failures, and using this information to improve relationships and outcomes over time.

Collective Intelligence

Simply put collective intelligence is really the key to tackling the concept of multiple solutions through emergence. The first I had heard of collective intelligence was meeting Kathleen Kennedy, Executive Director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI). The CCI is a research center dedicated to studying how groups and organizations can collaborate effectively to solve complex problems. The center brings together experts from a variety of fields, including psychology, economics, computer science, and management, to explore new approaches to collaboration and problem-solving.

But, I believe Sir Geoff Mulgan may be the originator of collective intelligence. He is a British social entrepreneur and academic who has conducted extensive research on the topic of collective intelligence. He is the author of several books on the subject, including “Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World.”

Mulgan defines collective intelligence as “the ability of groups to solve problems and make decisions that are better than the abilities of any individual member of the group.” He argues that by working together, groups can achieve outcomes that are more innovative, effective, and sustainable than what individuals can achieve on their own.

Mulgan’s work on collective intelligence focuses on several key themes, including:

  1. Collaboration and diversity: Mulgan argues that collaboration and diversity are critical to unlocking the full potential of collective intelligence. By bringing together individuals from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, groups can tap into a wider range of knowledge and expertise.
  2. Experimentation and learning: To make the most of collective intelligence, Mulgan emphasizes the importance of experimentation and learning. By testing new ideas and learning from both successes and failures, groups can continually improve their problem-solving and decision-making capabilities.
  3. Technology and tools: Mulgan recognizes the important role that technology and tools can play in supporting collective intelligence. He highlights the potential of digital platforms and tools, such as crowdsourcing and prediction markets, to enable large groups to work together more effectively.
  4. Governance and leadership: Finally, Mulgan argues that effective governance and leadership are essential for harnessing the power of collective intelligence. Leaders must create an environment that encourages collaboration and experimentation, while also providing clear direction and accountability.

Mulgan’s work on collective intelligence provides a valuable framework for understanding how groups can work together to achieve more than what individuals can achieve on their own.

Solutions in Pasta and Spaghetti in The Rainforest

Another way of relationship building to create the conditions that allow for the emergence of multiple solutions is utilizing John Bessant’s spaghetti model of innovation. The framework is useful for understanding the complex and unpredictable nature of innovation. The model is based on the idea that innovation is a messy and nonlinear process, characterized by experimentation, iteration, and improvisation.

The spaghetti model of innovation suggests that innovation involves multiple strands or pathways, which are interdependent and can interact in unpredictable ways. These strands can represent different types of innovation, such as product, process, or organizational innovation.

The model also highlights the importance of different stages in the innovation process, including idea generation, development, implementation, and commercialization. These stages are not always linear, and can overlap or occur simultaneously.

The spaghetti model of innovation emphasizes the importance of flexibility, adaptability, and experimentation in the innovation process. It recognizes that innovation is not a linear process, but rather a messy and nonlinear process that requires multiple strands and pathways to be explored in parallel. By embracing this complexity, organizations can be more agile and responsive to change, and more successful in their innovation efforts.

The Rainforest metaphor, developed by Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt, is another framework for understanding how successful innovation ecosystems function. The metaphor compares the complex and dynamic nature of innovation ecosystems to that of a rainforest, where a diverse range of species coexist and thrive in a complex and interconnected ecosystem.

According to the Rainforest metaphor, successful innovation ecosystems share several key characteristics with rainforests, including:

  1. Diversity: Just as a rainforest contains a diverse range of species, successful innovation ecosystems contain a diverse range of actors, including entrepreneurs, investors, educators, and policymakers.
  2. Interconnectivity: Just as a rainforest contains a complex web of interdependent species, successful innovation ecosystems contain a complex web of relationships between actors, including mentorship, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing.
  3. Resilience: Just as a rainforest is able to adapt and respond to change, successful innovation ecosystems are able to adapt to changing economic, social, and technological conditions.
  4. Collaboration: Just as species in a rainforest work together to survive and thrive, actors in successful innovation ecosystems work together to solve complex problems and create new opportunities.

Hwang and Horowitz argue that the Rainforest metaphor offers a more accurate and useful way of understanding how successful innovation ecosystems function in creating the conditions that allow for the emergence of multiple solutions. By recognizing the complex and dynamic nature of innovation ecosystems, and the importance of diversity, interconnectivity, resilience, and collaboration, policymakers and entrepreneurs can create more effective strategies for fostering innovation and economic growth.

In conclusion, fostering more, quality, and trusted relationships is a critical component of building successful organizations and communities. By establishing open and honest communication, actively listening, being transparent, collaborating, and investing in relationships, individuals and organizations can create an environment of trust, understanding, and shared success. These steps can lead to more effective problem-solving, greater innovation, and improved outcomes for all stakeholders. By prioritizing relationship-building, individuals and organizations can create a solid foundation for success and growth, and navigate complex challenges with greater ease and resilience.

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