When Tweaks Won’t Do

I saw a message on Twitter recently, in the context of innovation in the recycling/zero waste arena, that read “Identify the problem, evaluate the system, ideate options, implement solutions. Lather rinse repeat!”

And I thought to myself  – No! – with an asterisk.

The asterisk is knowing what domain you are operating in:

  • Simple, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach is to Sense – Categorize – Respond and we can apply best practice.
  • Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense – Analyze – Respond and we can apply good practice.
  • Complex, this is the domain, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
  • Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is to Act – Sense – Respond and we can discover novel practice.
  • Disorder, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state people will revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision.

This comes from the Cynefin Framework from

Cynefin Framework

If the folks working on issues like zero waste, the repair economy and life cycle based sustainability want to adapt unleash innovation and creativity to come up with new practices, then the approach described in the tweet of “Identify the problem, evaluate the system, ideate options, implement solutions. Lather rinse repeat!” will not get them there. My guess is that they want to change the game, not just tweak the existing one.

Paul Hobcraft describes what is needed one of his recent posts Reducing our dependency on others innovation best practices is essential:

If you are pushing for more radical innovation then it has a higher complexity and risk and falls into the complex domain. The range of options sometimes seems infinite where we explore more through the lens of perspectives and judgement. The outcomes are never easy to predict upfront and you need to keep looking for patterns to emerge and ‘inform’ your decisions. The use of experimentation, gamification, allowing greater interactions and a place you encourage dissent and finally be patient and allow time for reflection. This type of innovation can change the game.

Contrast that with incremental innovation or slightly more distinctive innovation:

For incremental innovation, constant reoccurring stuff, the ‘simple’ domain applies and best practice pushes down on efficiencies and effectiveness, on being consistent with standard processes and clear structures. Always be conscious of the limitations within best practice.

For a more distinctive innovation you tend to move more towards the complicated domain, where experts ‘kick-in’ to help and offer plausible outcomes based on known experiences.

I am reminded of Business Innovation Factory’s Saul Kaplan’s message that “tweaks won’t do” (emphasis is mine):

Thriving in the midst of today’s frenetic pace of change requires a new set of approaches and tools. Incremental change may have been enough at the end of an industrial era marked by me-too products and services, process re-engineering, best practices, benchmarks, and continuous improvement. We have built institutions that are far better at share taking than at market making. We have become really good at tweaks. There are tons of books, experts, and tools to help us make marginal improvements in the way things work today and to fight it out with existing competitors for one more share point. But how do we become market makers? Incremental change may be necessary but it isn’t sufficient for the 21st century defined by next practices, disruptive technologies, market making, and transformation. ~ Saul Kaplan, CEOs can’t tweak their way to innovation

So if you want tweaks and incremental innovation, then tuck into the identification/analysis/investigation and apply expert knowledge. But if you want radical innovation, then taking action in the complex domain is what’s needed: probing (running safe-to-fail experiments), sensing (learning from the failures and the successes) and responding (amplifying or recovering).

In the complex domain we focus on safe-fail experiments rather than fail-safe design. For any coherent perspective or theory an experimental probe or series of probes are created. Experiments are not necessarily designed to succeed but to create insight and understanding about what is possible. Experiments can be parallel and may even contradict each other as the domain is unknowable. ~ Cognitive Edge

Duskweb Evan Leeson via Compfight