Are we programmed to innovate or stick with what we know? Welcome to the Jungle…..and the Big Beasts

20130806-230110.jpgLast week I observed something at the edge of my knowledge, a discussion about……, innovation and evolution. A potent combination that elicits strong opinions, and a jungle that I don’t fancy entering. So, I’ll just commentate from sidelines like a ‘low rent’, bloggy David Attenborough…. “experience the thrill of two big beasts slugging it out, blow for blow…..”

This is how the scene at the metaphorical jungle watering-hole presents itself.

Typical Friday morning in the jungle. I retweet one of my posts about how some big organisations have ‘ideas antibodies’. I’d proposed that big organisations, (and many people), don’t really like new stuff, and do things to make sure that innovative ideas are killed-off. The analogy of a biological immune system, antibodies congregating to neutralise the effect a foreign body, seemed to fit quite well? It was a post that has been inspired by listening to Dave Snowden.
A typical morning at the watering-hole with lots of exchanging exciting chatter. Oh and by the way, I then disappear into the undergrowth (work).

The Big Beasts approach the watering-hole. One of the reasons I’d suggested why there were ‘ideas antibodies’ was to do with evolutionary development. The proposition was that we have developed by sticking with what we know. The best place to hunt for Wildebeest, the best places to gather wild fruits etc. Any attempt to move away from the ‘best’ is met with resistance. Why would we want to risk failure if everything is going just fine? There is the view that this is a successful evolutionary trait has carried on to the current day, something I borrowed from Professor Alf Rehn.

Enter the Complex Care Wales Big Beast. I know Matt who’s runs @ComplexWales, and he’s a clever guy. Matt likes this sort of talk and is straight on it, diving in with some tweets to support the argument, and take things further. To paraphrase ‘from an evolutionary perspective we are predisposed to accept best practice…… we are more likely to avoid failure than mimic success from elsewhere’ (Matt does write excellent tweets).

Enter the Ferret Fancier Big Beast. I don’t know @bendean1979, but he’s a Doctor, so he must be clever. Ben offered the counter view that it is actually an evolutionary advantage to accept new ideas and be innovative. Accepting new ideas is what has got us to where we are as a species, all part of the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ theory. Now that seems to make sense to me, except Matt came back with a counter argument.

So where does this leave me? At times of sparring at the jungle watering-hole, I do find it’s best to align yourself with the biggest beast you know. For this sort of stuff it would be Dave Snowden. It’s always good to back up ideas with some practical evidence and in this video Dave uses the example of the search for finding a method of measuring longitude. Dave describes how the established thinkers of the day rejected an innovative (and very effective) method, which is both sad and illuminating.

From my own perspective I’ve experienced idea blocking by some Information Technology ‘experts’ in response to open source software and social media. I’ve seen examples where the ‘experts’ have gone from; ignorance to denial to obstruction; and are now promoting it like it was their own idea in the first place. How do you rationalise that sort of massive shift in viewpoint?

One final thought. When very few people read my blog I never had any of this sort of excitement. I think I need to get more engaged in the conversation when I ‘drop rocks’ into the watering-hole, and not scurry off to the undergrowth. Thanks Matt and Ben, in my view (IMHO), that kind of discussion is what social media should be about.

So, what’s the PONT?
1.If you are going to drop a rock in the social media ‘watering hole’, you need to stick around to see what happens with the ripples.
2. If the big beasts enter the watering hole, either, stay in David Attenborough commentator mode, stand your ground, or find an even bigger beast to hide behind.
3. I’m sticking with the view there are organisations (and people) with a ‘predisposition’ to have ideas antibodies, and it’s probably an evolutionary trait.

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About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

18 Responses

  1. Steve Martin

    I think there may be a link between the culture of an organisation and its people. I am reminded of a visiting motivational speaker at a regional conference of a large audit organisation in England (sadly no longer exists in the same form) – he launched into his talk on ‘creativity’ and urged the audience of mainly auditors to try new, innovative solutions and to let their creative juices flow. Blank faces all round. In Colourworks terms ( the ‘blues’ want things done correctly, the ‘reds’ want it done NOW!, the ‘greens want everyone to be happy with how it is done and the ‘yellows’ want to do things differently. In an organisation which attracts ‘blues’ any attempt at change, whether revolutionary or evolutionary has to be sold as being able to make the work/outcomes more accurate/correct more efficiently although for the the ‘reds’ (who may be in leadership roles) they want the change to get quick results. I think there may be different personalities and foreces at work within any organisation and changes have to be approached in ways that reflect the different standpoints.

  2. I saw some fragments of this conversation at the time, and was sorely tempted to join in, but came to the decision that the particular complexities of evolutionary arguments couldn’t really be communicated in 140 chars or less. So here’s my opportunity (thanks Chris).

    I’m going to address this to Matt’s assertion, which, on the face of it, makes perfect sense
    “from an evolutionary perspective we are predisposed to accept best practice…… we are more likely to avoid failure than mimic success from elsewhere”
    except it isn’t true (sorry). It may well be true if we remove the first four words -‘from an evolutionary perspective’ – but not as it stands.
    Evolution is one of those things that we all think we understand, but turns out on closer examination to contain all sorts of unexpected twists and wrinkles. Darwin’s beautiful algorithm of Natural Selection is indeed both simple and powerful, but how it plays out in the world is hellishly complex. In the same way that most of us understand the Butterfly Effect, but wouldn’t want to track the many multiple ways it might be instantiated.

    There are several key points to understand about how evolution works.
    1. natural selection doesn’t care about individuals, it is a transmission method for genes
    2. natural selection preserves any mutation which doesn’t kill the organism that manifests it before that organism replicates itself
    3. natural selection is not inherently progressive – it is just change plus environmental fit

    So what does this mean for citing evolution in arguments about human behaviour? I’m afraid the only conclusions we can draw about behavioural predispositions is that those which exist are unlikely to be fatal to adolescents and below.

    We can however remove the biology and just do the science, soft as it is as far as nailing down personality traits, and even softer for group behaviour. If the question is (and I think it is) “Are people more likely to avoid failure than mimic success?” then measure it, do the study, put the relevant controls in place, replicate it reliably – that’s science. Evolutionary “Just So Stories”, attractive as they are, are plausible accounts after the fact, determined entirely by what we see in the present. Here’s a pretty thorough treatment of the issues (which I now wish I’d read before I wrote this comment)

  3. first things first, we are in no way predisposed to follow dogma (best practice or whatever reductionist model of bugger all), it takes years of building hierarchies and ideologies of power, to manipulate us into believing one, out of context, answer to everything, and we still resist and do our own thing.

    Oh, Bryn a little ‘random walk’ quote from Gould or was it Dennet arguing against him. I have to own up to loving a bit of brain based exaptation. I chose my words carefully “anthropologically” speaking I said; we are a species of malicious gossips (a bit of Snowden to keep Ponty happy) and there’s a fair body of literature (request gone to favourite librarian for my old reading list) in studies of many cultures east and west, new and old – that when we act, we introduce vestiges of order – (I think that’s Weick) to fight against nature herself to keep out all her uncertainty. As a result from within our own little cocoon of situational order, there’s nothing better than bad news, learning all about how someone else properly cocked it up. A couple of years ago another Mr Williams did an unashamed self promoting article, but if memory serves there are 17 bad to 1 good news story in the popular press, we love it. Who needs a study, google “news”.

    The last thing you want to here is how some lucky twonk in another tribe, has done so blinking well by accident, because by definition he can’t be as good as you. In evolutionary terms although Bryn will correct me, perhaps in meta-evolutionary terms, the world, the species, the country, the place, the organisation ad-fractal-infinitum is better off overall with plenty of diversity. We are predisposed not to comply with someone else’s idea of order so that if they all die, we won’t. I can remember reading some weird blog, on this as the root of religion, to build one set of rules for social manipulation to serve a glutenous elite!

    By definition in our (left overs of the mystical hierarchical medieval dogma, command and control leadershipper stuffed) organisations, those up top in charge of doctrine, do not recognise them down there with the new ideas, that threaten to make the old ideas irrelevant. “If they are right”, say the leadershippers “then my ideas, my history and all that evidence, in the reports we commissioned, that gave me this power and position are wrong, and that can’t be right, look at the evidence”.

    So in most cases, someone down in a massive organisation that won’t listen, leaves to pursue his idea, which then comes back in as – the way the rest of the world are now doing it. Steve Jobs did it twice, I rest my case.

    So are there antibodies, too right and they are manifest in the resulting forlorn self-preservation (wow that’s evolutionary too in Dawkinesque kind of way). Are we anciently, evolutionarily and innately inclined to learn from success, nope! Do we intuitively recognise danger, yes: is the rustle in the long grass a bunny (lunch) or a tiger (I’m lunch). While your busy learning from someone with an innate sense of bunny, you’re going to get eaten. We first fit pattern match, not best fit pattern match, so (here we go Bryn) your gene or your meme, whispers in your ear, “run like feck” so that it’s more likely too get passed on and in our case, passed on by the whole family we’re protecting from the bunnies or tigers. In a long lifespan it’s better to miss a loads of bunnies rather than get a single tiger.

    Sincere apologies, I’m reading “Intuition Pumps” and marking it’s relevance using “Thinking Fast and Slow” while drinking excellent south American Pinot Noir. Well it’s a hobby!

    1. Okay, got to be careful that I don’t get myself into arguing a position I don’t hold (happens all to often). I agree with everything up to, and a lot following, ‘malicious’. Pretty sure there’s a case to be made for the importance of social information gathering (gossip) to protect, promote, locate your position in the tribe/gang/bullingdon club etc which isn’t necessarily malicious, more like a verbal grooming ritual so nit-picking AND smoothing out backhair. Happy to substitute ‘strategic’ for ‘malicious’.
      Bad news is disproportionate, but recently read that the proportion of bad news published in the press has risen from something around 11-1 in 50s to 31-1 presently [all figures likely to be off by a mile…or so]. This suggests that love of bad news is not constant, but shifts according to context. Also, be very interested whether, when left to their own devices, eg Google/Twitter, people’s appetite for bad news reflects the ratio of whats pushed at them. There’s a social media analysis waiting to be done!
      So, I forgot I knew the word exaptation, I think of it as spandrels (the pretty but superfluous bits in the empty corners of Norman(?) arches) which I think is from Dennett, but Gould is certainly responsible for my scepticism about arguments that natural selection made us more likely to behave like this than like that. Pinker is very good on what we can learn from comparing identical twins, nonidentical twins and close siblings, and also comparing them in raised together vs raised apart circumstances. I’ll have to find the book, but basically we can get a good indication not only of how much influence of culture vs DNA, but also what kinds of properties one or the other influences. Don’t recall a conclusion on gossip.
      Tigers and bunnies: In my view the mind is the game changer on this. Pattern recognition gets you so far, but when your ideas die in your stead’ [can’t remember where/who from] then you’re better off planning your hunting trip to avoid Tiger Bay and cut straight through Watership Down. And this is where we find the main lever for innovate vs assimilate. Your forethought is limited by your beliefs. If you believe that the benefit reward for upsetting the boss leaves you in the negative zone, then your imagination does the rest of the work for you, and if it doesn’t prevent you from acting, it will certainly try to apply the brakes. The solution is in ensuring your beliefs are as accurate as possible, so your simulations are as accurate as possible. Which is why peddling falsehood is an effective and low cost method of control…perhaps.
      My conclusion is that regardless of culture or biology, it is information, and the quality of that information, which most determines peoples attitudes and behaviours, and we should not be surprised that a cohort of individuals working on the same assumptions end up behaving in the same ways.

      1. Before Nosapience falls over her feet to introject some phenomenological spit and vigor:

        Bryn you have a lovely fluid pattern of thought, or articulation or both!! The tribal behaviour is certainly right, and it is, in its relative certainty; pseudo religious at worst, and socio-therapeutic at best. Sense of belonging and all that inner goodness, Maslow stylie. But I’d go ‘tactical’ not ‘strategic’ as resources, opinions or allegiances are only deployed in proximity to favourable conditions – not long term in act, but hopefully in consequence.

        Either way, typically complex, with plenty of equally plausible, and occasionally incompatible, correct answers. I have an issue with belief albeit very powerful: a belief is an argument you can authentically, hold to be true without any evidence or in fact, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

        Epistemologically, knowledge is acutely situational as you only know what you know, when you need to know: the serendipitous conflagration of a truth a belief and an experience! Even when you’re trying to do it! I’m sure this will get a kicking but, Information is just a recognisable pattern of energy or matter, depending on the zeitgeist of your ‘ology. The signal and the noise, tree falls in the woods – and all that!

        Bryn, tweet some links to your writing.

  4. Thanks Matt that’s much appreciated. Haven’t written much since finishing my thesis 13 years ago but used to do @ 7000 words every two weeks during term time for 10 years, Slowly finding my voice again, No extant digital writing to link to I’m afraid – other than prosaic bits about data visualisation and an election campaign – although a friend recently suggested I revisit my thesis on Mind & Imagination.

    So I suppose I should respond on beliefs and why I use the very (intentionally) thin idea of information rather than, say, knowledge or facts.

    On beliefs: I think of them as functional terms in a proposition (for these purposes – I’m not completely insane) So “John hid under the chair because he believed the Tooth Fairy wanted to kill him”. The truth or falsity of the belief is unimportant, it still works to explain his actions. I think that in general, the more accurate our beliefs the more likely our actions are to be optimal, but there are probably exceptions to that. Even in this little example there are certain implied beliefs, John’s unorthodox view of Tooth Fairies, his belief that you can hide from them effectively under chairs etc. But, at one level of explanation we can say that an action can be successfully explained by appeal to beliefs. At another level we can talk about this neuron and that neuron and certain impulses, and we should be talking about exactly the same event, The test of the explanation is how well it fits the observed facts.
    The problem with functionalist accounts of belief is that they don’t much care about the truth value of the belief one way or another. But then that’s also why I like them – functionalism lets me side-step worries about content, I don’t have to do epistemology.
    My preference not to do epistemology also explains why I use ‘information’. It’s content neutral and doesn’t force me (at this stage at least) to have a theory of how the world outside a person is represented.’inside’ a person. All I have to say is that the more accurate a person’s representation of the environment within which they act, the more likely they will act appropriately (sufficiently contentious, but relatively plausible).
    All this manoeuvring is not to hide the fact that I don’t know what the relation between thoughts and things are,or even whether there are only thoughts, or only things.I admit freely that I don’t, it is only to allow me to say something that may more closely approximate the truth than if I relied on one or other ontology. Like Shane, if you can go round them, why go through them?

    1. Wow that’s everything from Solipsism through Mags Midgley antiscientism up to the weird hetero-phenomonological Douglas Adams. I’d better get my towel.

      So can choose to believe whatever I like and that is a good enough motivation for what ever I choose to do? Sideling up alongside the sociological model of mental health here, if your poor and hide from fairies, you’re nuts. Rich and you’re plain just a harmless eccentric. Had to have a Guilty chuckle at the recent show on Frank Bruno. He’s bi-polar and a CMHT mate of mine said any other huge black man with those symptoms would, in her experience, get tarred with schizophrenia.

      So I wonder whether you’re suggesting a solipsistic irreverence (none of that out there really exists) from certain people up top when they see an idea they don’t believe in? A psychological process of protection rather than a biochemical one. It would mean that beliefs, despite being internally uniquely integrated into action, are actually socially constructed. So just like OCD camp (great BBC3 show) you need exposure therapy and some strategies to subdue their overwhelming desire to ritualise!

      Right that the diagnosis and potential treatment for a Leadershipper who has an allergic reaction to new ideas. A sort of innovation-antihistamine!!

      Information! Not just a measure of surprise! Going to need a metaphor to tread carefully on that one! Tell me if we hadn’t have found Genes would they still have any information?

      1. I suspect that you might be deliberatly misunderstanding me for the sheer joy of it, so I will clarify for the same reason. But first, yes, Douglas Adams has had a profound affect on my thinking.

        Okay, so I’m not prescribing any one set of beliefs, or judging their value, and I certainly don’t think that individuals can choose to believe whatever they like…beliefs are formed in the usual way, either by good or bad reasoning, authority and/or evidence, simply bumping into things in the world etc. In fact, I think it is very hard to change a belief without a reason to do so. Beliefs sit in a network that tends to coherence – otherwise you kick off a cognitive dissonance that either leads you to check your assumptions, or, more frequently perhaps, refuse to believe the new, conflicting evidence. (the Victor Meldrew syndrome). The exception to this would be brute manipulation of the psyche by drugs or trauma where the actual mechanisms underlying coherent thought are damaged.

        [Aside] What I find very interesting is when we imagine we believe somthing we don’t. A novellist must deduce the consistent actions of her character by building an entire ‘off-line’ personality, with false beliefs, but rational conclusions from those, while retaining their own real world beliefs. [Aside over]

        If I were to speculate on how this impacts on an indivdual’s abilty to accept and incorporate new information, I would say that where that individual has a lot of their world view invested in beliefs that are challenged by the new information they may simply not be able to rearrange their mental furniture. This is true for liberals as well as conservatives, atheists as much as acolytes. So I think I agree with your allergy metaphor (similie? I never get that right). New information is challenging, and to the degree that it challenges a whole system of beliefs, the system will react; an overload will create an overreaction (and a small idea can represent a huge overload if it contradicts multiple assumptions).

        Objects contain information whether we can interpret it or not. Genes are a special case of an object which transmits infomation, like a bee’s bum. Bees were giving each other directions long before we figured out what the waggle was about.

        Now, I’ think we may be neglecting our host. Chris, I think the antibody metaphor has wings. Lets go with the ideas expressed here about how a system depends on coherence of beliefs, and beliefs detemine action, and that systems are resistant to threats to their coherence. Now, imagine that individuals within the system may have belief networks that so mirror that of the organisationthey identify with that they embody that organisation. A challenging idea for the organisation becomes a challenging idea for that individual, and so, in acting in their own defence, they are also acting in the organisation’s defence. In that way they might correctly be thought of as both products of the system, and defenders of that system against dangerous infections, although always working completely independently of the organisation’s ‘brain’ (executive). Autonomous antibodies – I have an image of Mr Smith in the Matrix.

        Oh and Don’t Panic!

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