13. Seeking the Truth of the Position

Darwinism is less ’survival of the fittest’ and more ’survival of those best adapted to their particular environment’. It’s a less catchy tag-line but more accurate. Giant tortoises in the Galapagos haven’t thrived for millennia because they’re a master race but because they were better able to adapt to an environment full of mud, large vegetation and an absence of mammals. But what would happen to these tortoises if the mud dried up, vegetation died out and mammals appeared?

The challenge facing organisations today is how to improve their fitness “to shape and cope with an ever-changing environment” (Colonel Boyd)

Biology sees ‘fitness’ as the suitability of an agent (e.g. a species) to the environment (or ecosystem) they’re in. Fitness is relative to other agents competing and/or collaborating for access to the same finite resources. To survive species seek niches (e.g. a particular set of nut producing trees), experiment to find novel ways to thrive (e.g. using larger rocks to break open harder nuts) and whose interactions change the nature of the ecosystem itself (e.g. spreading seeds to new areas) that create new niches for further exploration.

Nature therefore is in a constant state of change, despite seeming — from our subjective perspective — to be stable. And the same illusion affects modern organisations: yesterday’s customers seem like they will be tomorrow’s as well; high employee engagement scores today suggest people will remain with you; brand leadership today seems to provide an unenviable advantage for competing tomorrow. Yet change comes as a ‘punctuated equilibrium’ — some years no change happens; some days years worth of change occur as the final snowflake triggers the avalanche.

The critical question leaders must ask is how fit are their organisations for new landscapes that might emerge.

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future” (Niels Bohr)

Complexity makes the future unknowable⁠ [1] leaving our only option to increase our awareness of the knowable present. The great chess grandmaster Kasparov was one asked why he was such a dominant player — was it because he was calculating more moves ahead than anyone else. Kasparov quickly dismissed the pointless waste of energy such calculation would demand from a human player and replied that when he looked down at a chessboard all he was seeking was the ‘truth of the current position’.

To understand the truth of their current position organisational leaders need to forgo the impossible future and look beyond their own borders — their own action alone — and instead see how they interact with others and how others interact with them [⁠2]. Feedback loops mean our actions impact on the environment around us and the actions of others in the environment impact on us. [⁠3] The boundaries of your organisation extend far beyond your fixed walls — context changes everything.

The philosopher Alicia Juarrero demonstrates [⁠4] the consequences of interconnectedness and feedback loops with the simple yet elegant example of a canoe— a thing designed to seeming perfection and undeniable beauty over hundreds, if not thousands of years. The simple question she asks is ‘how would you improve the canoe today’?

Take a moment to consider the picture an answer:

You may have thought to add some sails, an engine, re-build it biodegradable materials, add a GPS. But now imagine this same canoe about to tip into some fierce white water rapids.

Do your suggestions make sense now?

The point is that while we can design for perfection in a stable environment (the calm lake in the first picture) we can’t when the context becomes turbulent (the rapids). This is the problem of Science 1.0 [⁠5] thinking — that the world is essentially knowable if we know the component parts and their direction and speed of movement — but Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle shows us that nature is essentially messy, fuzzy and ultimately unknowable. Organisations that operate according to Science 1.0 seek to improve the canoes features and functions and get unstuck when reality bites.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face” Mike Tyson

Metaphorically⁠ [6] putting the canoe in the water creates a feedback loop between the agent (the canoe) and the context of the wider environment (the water). When the context changes — as it does in a more volatile world — the canoes limitations become immediately clear in a way it wasn’t before (it’s unstable) but options for how to address this also reveal themselves (widening the base will increase its stability). The simple act of putting the boat in the water ‘embeds it in its context and exports the environment into itself’ — allowing a new form of cohesiveness between things to emerge. This is the first step to the type of innovation organisations need to adapt.

A sloppy ‘canoe’ - fit for purpose
“Without embedding in context there is no cohesiveness”.

The lesson for organisations is that you can’t ‘cause’ innovation to happen in a billiard ball or engineering sense, but you can make things more interdependent (putting the canoe in the water) from which novel forms of cohesiveness emerge that can then be adapted for that context. This requires a shift from trying to design for perfection and instead design for adaptability and evolvability: what biologists call ‘designing for “sloppy fitness”’ — building in redundancy/slack to handle shocks without losing your identity as to who or what you are.

The truth of the position is to recognise that it’s a raft that gets you through the rapids. Organisation need to use appropriate methods for their context.

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Narrative Insights is part of a global network working with leaders to apply insights from complexity science to ‘outflank wicked problems’. Harnessing complexity enhances agility — making you more adept at extracting value from an uncertain world by working effectively with how things really are — rather than only how you wished they were.

For more details on our ideas and work visit us on narrativeinsights.com or get in touch marcusguest@narrativeinsights.com

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