This one’s about uniqueness and serendipity and ‘chaos’, and I’d better say straight away that it’s a lot more tentative and exploratory than many of my posts of late.
I’m seeing a theme in enterprise-architecture and the like that’s always been there in the background, but seems to have recently started to become a lot more visible to a lot more people. It’s difficult to pin it down precisely, but it can be seen sort-of sideways-on in many other themes:
- design-thinking and the like, now even embedded in the new US Army field-doctrine
- references to the difficulties of designing for uniqueness or ‘being prepared for surprise‘
- a lot of posts on applications of improvisation-training in business, not just for sales-folks but for business-execs as well
- more references to futures (futures-plural, that is, rather than the singular ‘predicting the future’)
- more interest in ideas about personal-level strategies and tactics for innovation, such as those from one of my favourite books, Beveridge’s The Art of Scientific Investigation
- a sense that the pace of change in business is heading towards real-time, and often is already at real-time
- a surprising number of references to serendipity in business, often linked to innovation in various forms
- a renewed focus on disaster-recovery, business-continuity and the impact of ‘long-tail’ kurtosis-risk and ‘black swan‘ events
- the recognition that every sales-event is actually a unique ‘market-of-one’, in which the choices at the moment of choice are not predictable or ‘rational’ at all
- the role of visioning and the like within enterprise-architectures, business-architectures, quality-systems and so on
Or, to illustrate, a couple of items from today’s Twitterstream:
- CreatvEmergence: Improvise to Innovate – http://bit.ly/apch2U
- oscarberg: RT@esauve: “The Social Web is moving toward a future where serendipity replaces search” http://wp.me/p4P8c-zug from @gigaom
This isn’t about emergence, or the ways in which unique or ‘chaotic’ events can be used to guide sensemaking and pattern-identification in complexity: others are better-qualified to explore that domain than I am. Instead, what I’m seeing here is almost the inverse of emergence: rather than deriving a pattern within complex events, we choose and use a pattern to guide our choices in inherently-unique events. Not just serendipity, but serendipity by choice – an architecture for uniqueness.
One item that comes to mind here is Gooch’s Paradox, identified by the psychologist Stan Gooch: “things have not only to be seen to be believed, but often also have to be believed to be seen”. To enable serendipity to occur, we first have to be a mental space that allows it at all. In that sense, beliefs themselves become tools.
Another is a quote from The Art of Scientific Investigation:
The truth of the matter lies in Pasteur’s famous saying : “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.” It is the interpretation of the chance observation which counts. The role of chance is merely to provide the opportunity and the scientist has to recognise it and grasp it.
In a truly unique context – and it seems to me that every real-world context must always be in some part unique – there is only chance: there is no actual connection between anything and anything-else, other than that which we give it. Everything is coincidence, in an exactly literal sense of ‘co-incide-ence’: any meaning that we may ascribe (or not ascribe) to such coincidences is our choice.
Yet from Gooch’s Paradox, this also seems to be able to run backwards: we have the meaning first – predetermined beliefs from our culture or ‘scientific law’ or the like – and then find coincidences to match. The belief determines what we see – which can lock us out of an ability to see anything else.
So in a business-context, for example, the beliefs that we use to filter what we see need to be tight enough to allow us to make useful sense of what’s happening around us, but also loose enough to allow true serendipity to happen – where the context itself seems to be giving us what we need. Hence Pasteur’s “chance favours only the prepared mind”: a preparation that has the right balance between precision and openness.
Which leads us to the idea of an architecture of uniqueness, an architecture designed to enable and enhance opportunities for serendipity.
Improvisation is one obvious component of such an architecture: a deliberate practice in working with uncertainty, in real-time.
Another component might be some variant of meditation, where continual, consistent repetition of the same actions or conceptual behaviours provides a stable ground within which useful ideas and events can coalesce. (This is the exact inverse of Einstein’s famous remark that “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results”. That dictum is true enough in a predictable world; but in an inherently unpredictable world – any context which is truly unique – anything we do will always lead to different results, hence repeating the same action over and over may be the only thing that will keep us sane! 🙂 )
Sometimes we also need to deliberately ‘trick’ people into a state where serendipitous events can occur. For science-fiction buffs, this is very well described in Noise Level‘, a classic 1952 short-story by Raymond F. Jones: a group of scientists and engineers are asked to ‘reconstruct’ a supposed anti-gravity device, and actually manage to do so – only to be told at the end that the whole thing had been a kind of hoax, to show them how to open their minds to new possibilities that their conceptual filters would otherwise prevent them from being able to see. The method was a deliberate trick, but the end-results were no trick at all: nicely recursive, in that a very practical real-world technique is embedded in a fictional story about a fictional story.
There’s also the key role of visioning – a real enterprise-vision, that is, not the usual useless marketing-puff ‘vision’ – as a principle-based anchor for real-time decision-making amidst inherent uncertainty: the role in the military of ‘Commander’s Intent‘, for example, or John Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) cycle.
And there’s much more, such as the distinctions between analysis and emergence – which only ‘make sense’ outside of real-time – contrasted to the real-time spectrum between the simple and the chaotic; or the need for some kind of boundaries between the ‘special world’ or chaos – where anything is possible but can send us into panic the moment we go off-balance – compared to the ‘ordinary world’ of rules, regulations and supposed certainty.
So what’s your opinion on this? What can we do to make this work? What strategies, tactics, models, methods would we need for this ‘architecture of uniqueness’, and architecture to support serendipity? And how would we apply this in enterprise-architectures and elsewhere?
Over to you, if you would?