The Fleas in the Jar Experiment. Who Kills Innovation? The Jar, The Fleas or Both?

Yes, they are sitting on beanbags...
Yes, they are sitting on beanbags… cartoon by Tom Fishburne

Stick with me for a minute and I’ll explain the Fleas in a Jar Experiment. In the meanwhile how about some Idea Antibodies…?

Organisation Immune Systems. The concept of organisations having ‘Idea Antibodies’ has been around for a while, and is nicely explained in this post ‘I am a virus, My name is Innovation’ by Graham Brown-Martin (thanks to Marcus Guest for sharing it). I was first introduced to it by Dave Snowden and wrote about it here back in 2012.

The basic idea is that an organisation will have an ‘immune system’ that protects ‘the body’ from bad things that might do it harm. Antibodies will be attracted to the ‘bad thing’ and attack it to limit any damage it will cause. This is an automatic process that happens without the organisation thinking or doing anything purposefully to make it happen.

Unfortunately new ideas in an organisation can be seen as a ‘threat’ which stimulates an attack response from the ‘Idea Antibodies’ of the immune system. I’m sure you get the idea.

This might feel like a bit of a daft idea, but ponder on this question for a moment. Have you ever had (or seen) a brilliant idea go nowhere, or get killed off in an organisation for no obvious reason? ‘Death by a thousand committee papers’, ‘HR issues’, ‘procurement rules’, ‘indifferent managers’ or the dreaded ‘ethics committee’? Maybe these (and a few other things) are all part of the immune system response?

Why are New Ideas a Threat? This is a complicated question to answer. Graham Brown-Martin in his post suggests there are commonly 13 things that contribute, I’ve listed them below (with my own commentary):

  • Fear (fear of speaking out, fear of failure?)
  • Hierarchy (only the bosses can possibly have good ideas?)
  • Focus on short-term results (an obsession with meeting narrow targets?)
  • Risk of cannibalising (damaging) the existing business (the status quo dominates?)
  • Over reliance on data (not sense checking and using human judgement?)
  • Lack of purpose beyond profit (substitute profit for targets in public services?)
  • Lack of autonomy (part of the Hierarchy issue?)
  • Lack of a process to nurture ideas (see Fleas in the Jar Experiment)
  • Working in silos (hinders exchange of ideas?)
  • Micromanagement (linked to a lack of autonomy?)
  • Fixed and narrow job descriptions (linked to autonomy & hierarchy?)
  • Employee disengagement (see Fleas in the Jar Experiment)

You could boil this down to a basic human instinct and I really like this quote from Aldous Huxley.

“The vast majority of human beings dislike and even actually dread all notions with which they are not familiar…Hence it comes about that at their first appearance innovators have generally been persecuted and derided as fools and madmen”

Basically we don’t like things that are new / different / unfamiliar are will do our best to avoid them.

If you scale this behaviour from the individual up to the organisational level, you can see how it might appear as an immune system, with idea antibodies. The part of the quote that describes how innovation and people (the innovators) are often treated badly in organisations (and by wider society) is particularly relevant to the concept of immune systems and idea antibodies.

So what’s this got to do with Fleas and Jars? You might have found yourself in a situation where you have been invited to an organisational brainstorming session, hackathon, unconference or even a ‘skunk camp’.

I love that idea that an organisation wants to do something different, and get new ideas surfaced. I really do.

However, it’s often not that easy. Remember that list of 13 things that contribute to an organisational immune system?  What if you’ve spent your corporate life working in that environment for a number of years? There’s a fair chance that your behaviour will have been altered to respond to the environment. You might even have your own immune response to prevent getting hurt – not sticking your head above the parapet – and you might not even recognise it.

A while ago Andy Middleton summed this up for me as follows: “it’s like the fleas in the jar experiment. You stick some fleas in a jar, and leave the lid on for a while. When you take the lid off the fleas have learnt they cannot jump higher than the lid. Even when the lid is removed they never jump higher than the height of lid and escape the jar”

It’s powerful metaphor. There is a video that explains the process, with some convincing lab coats and scientific equipment in the background (and a suitably ‘serious scientist’ narrator). I’m not sure about some of the actual science behind the experiment, but it does make the point and raises a few questions:

  • If you are asking people who have been in the organisation for a long time to ‘think out of the box’ (or jar) it might be harder for them than you think.
  • If you are a ‘flea in the jar’, how do you know? You might be able to jump higher than you think.
  • How do you help people think outside the box / jump higher than they think they can?

Here is the Fleas in the Jar Experiment, enjoy the metaphor.

How to become a better flea? I’ve not much advice on this at the moment. The best I can suggest is go looking for another dog, cat or hedgehog to live on for a while. By experiencing how other fleas live you might get an idea of where your jar sits, and how to jump out should anyone decide to ‘remove the lid’ and invite you to a corporate brainstorming session.

Obviously (or possibly not) I’m talking about things like working for other organisations or secondments here. Probably best not to talk fleas and hedgehogs when you are discussing your secondment ideas with the HR department…

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Organisations can have immune systems and idea antibodies. It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.
  2. Be aware that you might have become a flea in the jar.
  3. One way to test if you have become a flea in the jar is to try out other dogs, cats and hedgehogs. It might help if the lid gets taken off your jar.

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:

11 Responses

  1. antlerboy

    There’s something in here about the (in)ability to switch contexts. Inter-contextuality, meta-contextuality, whatever it is or whatever you call it is how we get creative in the first place – but somehow we seem programmed to (quite often intentionally) limit ourselves to a single context really easily.

    If you put your post here together with the excellent post at Meaningness:
    (which, for me, shows why any method/toolset/worldview is necessarily limited in a world with infinite potential rulesets), I think you get something interesting.

    Systems/cybernetics/complexity teaches multiple contextual views but seems to do so only at ‘peak moments’ – before subsiding back into restricted contextuality as it is ‘applied’ to ‘specialisms’.

    This begs questions I don’t have time to explore here, but Bongard games are the best example for me of how you can teach this point – perhaps experientially – and which might have wider application.

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