Can One Engineer Explosions of Creativity?

Designing For Emergence in Organizations

Today, we can find many examples of organizations that emerged bursting with ideas: Pixar, Industrial Light & Magic, Disney Imagineering, and the beginnings of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Tesla. But this phenomenon has occurred throughout history. Consider the sustained explosion of creative output in Renaissance Florence, the tremendous influence of the short-lived Bauhaus, and the remarkable intellectual and technological output of Bell Labs.

How did they do it? Leaders of organizations of all types want to know the magic recipe of how to generate creative ideas and innovation on a continual basis.

Emergence, a defining property of complex systems

The above are examples of successful emergence. Emergence is what happens when elements — agents, in the terminology of complex systems theory — interact with each other to produce outcomes that could not have been predicted by examining the agents in isolation. Studying a single fish, bird, or termite does not give us a clue as to how fish organize themselves to move in schools, how birds move effortlessly in change-shaping flocks, or how termites manage to build mounds. At a higher level, no amount of knowledge about a neuron can explain how consciousness emerges when neurons connect and form a brain. Something seemingly magical can happen when many elements interact together.

Successful organizations seem to have magically created the right conditions for emergence. But can one design emergence? Or, if emergence has dwindled, how could one rekindle it?

Complex and complicated systems

We must first distinguish between “complex” and “complicated.” They sound similar, but when applied to systems, they work completely differently. The components in a complicated system work in unison to accomplish a function or series of functions. There is a master design with instructions for assembly, and every component is there to fulfil a function. For example, a nuclear submarine is complicated, as are jetliners and clocks. Complicated systems are designed to follow prescribed plans — the clock keeps time. Nothing magical or unexpected should happen when all the pieces are put together. When something unexpected does happen — a single defect, for example — it can bring the entire system to a halt, so redundancy needs to be built into the design in the form of multiple backups. Complicated systems do not adapt.

Complex systems are different. Complex systems can adapt, evolve, “learn” to solve new problems, tolerate imperfect components, and may have elements which are contextual — elements that can take on many functions. Like stem cells in biological systems, for example. But complex systems are not just biological. Traffic and transportation networks, the internet, the power grid, and financial networks are all complex systems.

Leadership and emergence

Organizations can be thought of as complex systems, interacting networks of individuals and business units. If successful emergence is the goal — and only complex systems can display emergence — there are profound advantages in seeing organizations as complex systems as opposed to complicated systems that cannot adapt and display emergence.

A successful leader (and a successful organization) is one that creates the conditions for successful emergence: the seemingly spontaneous surge of creative ideas and the successful execution of those ideas.

Maps and compasses: The job of the leader

To encourage emergence, leaders must first distinguish themselves from managers. Managing is guidance in slowly changing environments; leadership is guidance in complex, rapidly changing environments. Managers use maps, which are useful in stable, well-understood environments. But leaders don’t use maps; they develop compasses. In complex, changing environments, a compass is preferable to a map. This is the job of the leader, to set the culture of the place, the compass of the organization. The compass metaphor conveys both a sense of direction and balance. It is the leader’s job to create compass that allows for successful emergence.

Innovation is the result of a compass that drives a culture, not of a dictum from above. It is the result of a complex set of interactions by talented people who link and reinforce each other in unpredictable and surprising ways; individuals who see themselves as part of a whole creative system, who understand that ideas do not stay in restricted neighborhoods, and who feel they have the liberty to fail.

If a leader has created the right compass that encourages emergence, people in the organization should sense that they are part of a creative network, that they enrich the network and that, in turn, the network enriches them and teams who are aware of the sense of mission of the organization.

The goal is to design a system to give people space to do what they want to do, or even things that they may not even have known that they wanted to do. Negotiating the balance between freedom and control is the most daunting challenge of emergence-driven leadership.

Designing for emergence

What is needed to create conditions for successful emergence? It is hard to specify a complete list. Here are some key points that may serve as guide, or provide ideas, and spark further thought.

1. Plant the seeds for preferential attachment

Many networks grow by what is called “preferential attachment” or “like attracts like.” That means, for example, that people with similar backgrounds or interests are likely to connect with each other. The key issue is to augment the definition of “like.” “Like” need not be just people with similar backgrounds; it could be people who share similar modes of thinking or an appetite for ambiguity and imperfectly shaped ideas.

2. Design Nexus teams

Balance is essential. Creativity requires divergent thinking, whereas implementation requires convergent thinking; teams must include experts at both. What may result in high creative volume and lots of novel ideas may hinder the desired goal of innovation. Striking the right balance between idea creation and execution requires people who can serve as the connective tissue of the team: what I call Nexus thinkers. These are thinkers who can think both divergently and convergently, both creatively and rationally.  

3. Equip people with the ability to operate in complex environments

Teams — at the very least a few key members within them — must be prepared to recognize and exploit emergence, to be on the lookout for hidden connections, and to be comfortable operating in chaotic environments.

4. Decide on the right amount and kinds of friction

Friction within an organization or team slows things down; ideas may get trapped and move nowhere. But not all types of friction are created equal. Ideas originating from the middle of the organization may encounter all types of resistance, but ideas coming from the very top might experience no friction at all. Too much friction is bad, but pathways of no friction are dangerous as well. One does not want to enable artificial emergence: ideas that become reality because they did not experience any kind of vetting or any kind of resistance.

5. Have enough people who have a bias towards action and tolerance of failure

Some team members must have an ingrained motivation to act. Bias toward action must be accompanied by tolerance of failure and the ability to act in challenging and possibly hostile environments. This is hard to teach. But how to deal with setbacks is one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership. The skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.

Designing for emergence in an existing organization

Assessing the balance between complicated and complex

It is often said that an organization is complex if it has a large number of technologies, products, organizational units, processes of various kinds, geographical locations, input materials, suppliers, and so on. It’s true that the more of these components the organizations have, the more complicated they are. But we reserve the term “complex” to denote how the organization may link these components and how it reacts to inputs or perturbations of various kinds.

What happens, for example, if there is a disruption of a supply chain? The organizational chart or the depiction of the supply chain will tell us if the organization is complicated. To see complexity, we need to see how the organization reacts to disruptions.

Having more components brings some advantages. A complicated organization — assuming that all components are needed to produce a product — is a network that is hard to copy, because the components and the interactions both need to be copied. But complicability, defined here as an antonym to simplicity, has a price. Keeping track of multiple components may be costly and inefficient, and this can lead to unmanageability. More importantly, and well within the realm of complex systems, this can lead to the emergence of unexpected behaviors.

So not all complex systems are good, and some can lead to negative behaviors. How can leaders redesign organizations to create the right conditions for creative emergence?

1. Reduce complicability

In most organizations, complicability emerges organically. Rules appear to solve recurrent problems or by the need to respond to the external environment. In time, rules create bureaucracies. If untamed, complicability always increases. Paradoxically, rushed attempts to reduce complicability — that is, to increase simplicity by reducing components — may backfire, very much like in an ecosystem, where eliminating one species may lead to unforeseen consequences and the extinction of others.

2. Design for modularity

What may help reduce these behaviors of complex systems? Designing for modularity, where components have a controlled degree of interaction, is one possibility. Biology can serve as an example. Yes, everything within our bodies is connected, and problems in one organ may affect everything else, but to a large extent, organs operate in compartments. That is why we can have heart and kidney transplants. In modular systems, failures can be contained.

3. Limit the number of operating principles

Another way to control unexpected behaviors is to have a small number of operating principles. This, however, is far from easy: in response to specific challenges, growing organizations might need to form units that in turn may require completely new processes, things that go outside the existing playbook. On the other hand, we should remember that it is possible to create a nearly infinite number of things with only a few types or “parts.” Lego® building blocks offer one example. Biology is an even better one. All biology we see, from earthworms to zebras, depends on a remarkable small set of biochemical processes (“small,” given the amazing variety of lifeforms on Earth). Yet, another possibility is to mimic biological processes: successful mutations are favored by natural selection. Be on the lookout for small changes, do not let things fossilize. Unsupervised dangling parts may lead to unexpected behaviors.

Successful examples of designed emergence

Apple’s approach to launching apps is a remarkably successful example of designing a system for emergence. In 2008, Apple introduced the App Store, a digital distribution platform for its mobile devices, which would function as a centralized marketplace for users. Apple provided a comprehensive set of developer tools and support, making it easier for developers to create apps. They also introduced a revenue-sharing model where developers received 70% of the sales. This incentivized developers to create high-quality apps. But that was not enough. Apple also developed a strict approval review process to ensure that only quality and secure apps made it to the App Store. Attracting and retaining developers and users, along with promotion of the App Store worldwide accessibility along with the development of a developers (e.g., Worldwide Developers Conference), resulted in a thriving ecosystem that has become a cornerstone of Apple’s overall success.

Collaborative online platforms are also examples of emergence. An unexpectedly successful example collaborative content creation — unexpected, since it lacks the economic drivers — is Wikipedia, where contributions of individual users with wildly diverse backgrounds lead to the emergence of a comprehensive and evolving knowledge base.

Other examples of designing systems for emergence include open-source software development platforms such as GitHub, which provide a collaborative space for developers worldwide to contribute to open-source projects, and evolutionary algorithms in computing that simulate the process of natural selection to solve complex problems — having solutions evolve over multiple generations — leading often to unexpected and efficient solutions.

More broadly, one could say that social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, or crowdsourcing platforms such as Kickstarter are designed for emergent behavior. Even more broadly, one could argue that the free-market economy is a system that has evolved to produce successful examples of emergence.

Of course, there are many instances where attempts to create emergence and markets have faced challenges and failed to achieve intended ambitious outcomes. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were supposed to democratize education. MOOCs faced many difficulties: high dropout rates, limited credential value and, ironically, limited interaction and collaboration, the collaborative learning found in traditional classroom settings. A few amazingly well-educated MOOC people could have served as examples that education should not be monopolized by top-ranked universities. Recruiters would not have to rely on the pre-sorting of MIT or Stanford. But this did not happen, and not even pandemic lockdown made MOOCs achieve emergence.

Final thoughts for leaders

Leaders should aim to create a culture and conditions that enable emergence through setting direction rather than top-down control. Articulating a vision that serves as a rallying point is essential. Without a clear vision, there is no emergence.

Organizations should aim to create a complex adaptive system founded on trust, all forms of diversity, and empowerment that enables creative emergence and innovation.

Once the seeds are planted for preferential attachment, leaders should incentivize connections. Go beyond the “like attracts like” and stress the value of cross-subject experiences. Initiate critical collaborations and make sure that new initiatives involve people from other domains and enable people to be active participants in the co-building of the system.

Leaders can design the organization as complex and be obsessive about designing the right teams, but people should feel free within the system. Reduce points of friction in the free flow of ideas. Map a new model that attracts the right people, build programs to inform them, and make it impossible for them not to apply that thinking to the mainstream of their work.

Discover the world of nexus thinking

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