Three events in human history have fundamentally changed how we live our lives. The Agricultural Revolution took humans from nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers, allowing us to develop large, complex societies. The Industrial Revolution brought efficiency, replicability, and scalability to the objects and environments that make up the modern world. And the Information Revolution connected people across the globe and democratized access to knowledge. When taken as a trio, there are two things worth noting: The time between events is getting shorter—they happened roughly 8000, 200, and 50 years ago, respectively—and each wave has dramatically increased the complexity of the world.
Given the diminishing time between these events, we are already on the cusp of the next revolution and the new layers of complexity it will leave in its wake.
Design for Complexity
Unfortunately, humans aren’t well-equipped to deal directly with the complex. We can sort through and organize complicated things fairly easily. Invented systems like calculus and the periodic table help us describe abstract math and the nuanced properties of the natural world without too much trouble, and can be relied upon to work every time. However, when truly unpredictable complexity emerges, it’s human nature to skim over it in favor of overly simplified models that make the bigger ideas more digestible. For example, take the random mutation that’s inherent in DNA replication. We know how DNA replicates, and we know that mistakes (known as mutations) happen in this process, but most of us are perfectly happy to leave it there, without trying to understand why or how those mistakes happen.
But as complexity continues to permeate the world, it’s going to be much harder to avoid. Instead, we’re going to need to develop tools, skills, and mindsets to help us understand, manage, and ultimately tame complexity.
The Challenge for 2016
As the next revolution and its incipient complexity looms on the horizon, we predict that organizations will face two major challenges: preparing for an unknowable future, and innovating and iterating on their offerings to stay relevant in a constantly changing environment.
Developing resilient, durable products and services will take many forms as different industries push innovation forward in their respective realms, so let’s focus on the first challenge—becoming responsive in an undefined future.
Preparing for the Unknown
Traditionally, the role of design is to remove friction from the interactions between people and things. At MAYA, we tackle these issues with a human-centered, architectural, and often information-centric approach. That means we develop a deep understanding of people’s needs, desires and behaviors, and create a model of basic information to understand what it can do for people. Only after we map out the levels of complexity surrounding a given problem do we begin designing a solution. This approach is critical to solving the abstract, complex issues that exist in the increasingly dynamic world in which businesses operate.
Creating a Petri Dish
Once we’ve mapped out the levels of complexity and gotten a sense of the deeper system at play on a theoretical level, we need to create a way to accelerate discovery and foster emergence. In a world of unbounded, malignant complexity it’s the things you can’t predict—the unintended consequences—that will take you down. Rather than waiting for those consequences to emerge and using your entire organization as a petri dish (note: it’s always bad to run experiments on non-redundant systems), find a way to create a safe way to simulate the future. We call our method the “Double Helix.” One strand represents insights and experiments between the business and users, and the second strand represents the technology that could contribute to the solution. We look for ways to weave these strands together, allowing them to pull and push on each other, as they sweep out the future potential. The bridge points between these two strands are where the real action happens. With the Double Helix, we turn the intersections where the business model and the technology come together into events. We then use these events to make low-tech simulations in a sort of “Wizard of Oz” way, where we can simulate a year in a week, or a week in a day.
Consider finding a way to include the expected business and user actions, but also have a few players named “Murphy” and “Chaos” to bring unpredictable elements into the mix. These sorts of human-centered pilots can teach us through empirical testing, how to evolve our theory. We think of this as a “meet in the middle” approach to design science, rather than using purely empirical “test and learn” methods that amount to mostly what some people call “Plug and Pray.” Using this sort of approach you can discover what “must be true” in your situation and how human nature will shape the technology and react to the business model before you try it out in the real world.
There are two keys to developing an organization that responds and adapts in the face of uncertainty. First, acknowledge that no individual can see where change will come from. Second, understand that success depends on your ability to quickly adjust and adapt to new information. To do this, business leaders must empower everyone—from the bottom to the top of the organization—to look for threats and opportunities, and be able to respond to them in real-time. Furthermore, you need to find a way to balance the “bottom-up” churn of ideas and actions with the “top-down” need for organizational control.
In Nature, you can find the bottom-up method used by organisms like ants looking for food. Each ant embeds a signal in the environment when it wanders around seeking sugar. These signals get reinforced as more ants take similar paths. We call this approach stigmergy, which is also commonly used by architects in college campus settings. They’ll put down the lawns between the buildings and wait a semester or two to see where the paths get worn in the grass, then go back and turn those paths into more permanent walkways. But the problem with bottom-up approaches alone is that they can lead to vicious cycles (and circles) that can take your organization down an undesirable spiral. For a real world example of this phenomena, look at how army ants can be found in what’s called an ant mill. Once again, we’ve found that to achieve the best outcomes, a “meet in the middle” approach of top-down theory and bottom-up wandering is necessary. For a deep dive into how this approach has been used to create profound change in even highly bureaucratic organizations, check out this white paper.
For all this to work properly, you need both great people and a way to ensure that their efforts are aligned with the overall business goals. Luckily, defining your organization’s purpose—the reason your company exists—helps to address both of these. Let’s end on purpose and how we could define the right purpose to help address complexity in our focus area.
Defining a Purpose
So what makes a great purpose? For starters, it has to be authentic. If it doesn’t ring true for employees, or align with how the company actually operates, it will undercut everything you’re trying to do. Secondly, it needs to be broad enough to be durable, yet clear enough to be inspiring. It needs to be applicable to everyone in the organization, providing a North Star with which to align their work. It needs to be about more than making money.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Defining the why of your organization will help the right people find you, both to join your ranks as contributors and as customers to buy what you’re selling.
Plan a Path
Once you’ve built a great team rallied around your purpose, you must provide the necessary tools to ensure that everyone is working toward the common goal. These systems and policies should touch all aspects of your business and be modeled by every level of the organization. They include: defining purposeful meeting patterns, developing frameworks for testing and prototyping ideas like the Double Helix, incorporating frequent opportunities to take stock of how the work is progressing and course-correcting as needed by reviewing your top-down “theory” with your bottom-up experiments, and generating models to help everyone make decisions that prioritize the right things. When designed and implemented correctly, your teams will be better prepared to navigate an undefined future.
At the end of the day, amplifying your organization’s ability to respond to emerging threats and opportunities as quickly as possible will be the only reliable way to thrive in the face of complexity.
This article originally published at LinkedIn on December 23, 2015.