On the plane ride to my parent’s place, I read the book Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace, by Grant McCracken. I’ve been reading McCracken’s blog, titled This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics for a while and really enjoy his commentary on the process of ethnology and on the different layers present in the media around us. Sadly, the book itself wasn’t that great – the flows are basically the flows of ideas around us, and his flocks are basically the same idea as Geoffrey Moore’s adoption curve, where the enthusiasts and the early adopters try new technologies, creating a comfort level that paves the way for the majority of customers.
What’s interesting to me is that this same adoption mechanism has cropped up in a variety of different settings and used for different purposes. Here are a few from my own reading:
- Robert Pirsig makes the distinction between Static and Dynamic quality in his book Lila, where Dynamic Quality is what is always pushing ahead into the new, and Static Quality takes what works and latches it into a permanent form.
- In class, we talked about the S-curve of technology, which is related to Moore’s adoption curve. The same idea applies, where technology moves from being a novelty to being a market differentiator to being a commodity that everybody has.
- Howard Bloom uses similar concepts to explain the global brain, and how biological entities learn.
- On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins, posits a similar theory for how the brain learns. It’s a pattern recognition machine that doesn’t record new patterns until they have been used several times, indicating that they are successful patterns.
- Evolution works because there is continuous genetic drift, as the genome tries new things, and useful mutations get reinforced by natural selection, and latched into the genome.
I’ve been futzing around with this idea for a couple days now and I can’t quite get the unified theory here, but you can see the general idea. For continued successful adaptation of an entity, whether it’s a person, a genome, a corporation or a society, you need elements that are going and trying new things all the time, but you also need elements that are preserving the successful changes so that they don’t need to re-tried by the next generation. Learn and latch.
What’s apparent from my own experience is that you need a balance between the two phases for things to work. A person that never tries anything new, that follows the same routine every day, is probably very comfortable, because they have found a routine that works for them and they have latched it so that nothing else can interfere with that routine. But they may also be trapped on a local maximum, and not even realize that their life could be much better if they made a few changes. And they are susceptible to disaster if their environment changes unexpectedly. On the other hand, a person that is always trying new things, and is never satisfied with what they have, is probably going to live an exhausting life as they keep on getting into the same scrapes over and over again in different forms.
Obviously, those are extreme cases for the sake of example, but the organizational equivalents are evident, and I’ve seen both. I’ve worked at a company which had a process and procedure for everything, where you always had to fill out forms to do anything, and where it was more important to follow the process than it was to be successful. In a world of continuing innovation, that company is struggling. I’ve also worked at startups where we made the same mistakes over and over again, where we refused to learn from the experience of others, and that was just as frustrating.
The ideal organization (or person or entity of any sort) has parts of their existence which are devoted to trying new experiences and new ways of doing things without worrying about how those new experiences will integrate with what they have. Then if some of the new experiences seem useful, they adopt those experiences and build them into their processes. Now that I think about it, this describes Bruno Latour’s idea of the Collective, where new elements ask for admittance to the Collective via spokespersons, and then the Collective has to decide whether to accept the new elements and reconfigure itself so as to integrate those new elements. Man, it really is all the same idea.
As I illustrated above, this adoption mechanism is everywhere once I started thinking about it (my professor, Art Langer, calls the same concept Responsive Organizational Dynamism) (if you want to go old school philosophy, what little I know of Hegel suggests that Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis covers the same ground too). And by applying the ideas from one manifestation to others, there are some general principles that we can extract. One is that the situation is always changing, so you can’t stay static – an unchanging process, no matter how great it is, can not continue to remain successful in a dynamic world. Another is that there must be a way for you to adopt new things; for instance, McCracken discusses the various ways that the fashion, movie, music and restaurant industries handle adopting new ideas. And the last is that there must be a way to know what has been tried before and whether it worked or not; encoding or latching previous experiments keeps us from having to repeat them.
It makes me wonder if humans grew to dominate the planet because our communication skills allowed us to reduce the learn and latch cycle time from generations down to days (I think I read that idea someplace, but I can’t remember where now). I also think learn-and-latch provides a good general pattern to start working from. In my personal life, I need to think about how I try new opportunities and whether I can figure out how to integrate what I learn into my ongoing habits. In a company, it may be useful to review how the company incorporates new ideas into its culture, and what mechanisms it has in place to reinforce that process. Obviously, the details have to be tailored to each individual situation, but the general pattern is a strong one.
P.S. That last bit gets me thinking about the process of identifying general patterns and learning how to tailor them to one’s individual situation. Way too many people seem to follow specifics without understanding the gestalt that lies behind them. I tend to spend way too much time thinking about the underlying gestalt and not enough time figuring out how to extract practical applications. Hrm. Maybe this could be the project I suggested I needed in my last post.