Shining Among the Gimmicks, Weak Ties & Edges

Last week I realised that I was missing the casual serendipity of a busy city in our new found social isolation. Serendipity matters more than ever because innovation depends on boundary crossing, exploring edges and the value of weak ties. We need innovation to get ourselves to a better place, but we need to take care to avoid gimmicks.

Losing the Serendipity of Inspiration

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed

William Gibson

Gibson’s quote is so often shared that it no longer prompts reflection. It has become a trite aphorism to be added to talks on innovation as received wisdom. Soon it will be attributed to Winston Churchill and Einstein by enthusiastic futurists and earnest thought leaders.

Fewer people have taken to heart its advice on the need for search and diffusion in innovation. Our lost serendipity matters, because unless we are exceptional change agents, we have lost the opportunity to encounter an insight or an innovation to be shared. We need to get out beyond our usual boundaries and explicitly look for new ideas and actions. Once we find one we can share it, but more productively we need to act to propogate it.

I stumbled into the phrase working out loud when my path intersected with the members of the E2.0 community. I discovered it was an idea with a long genesis, deep practice and many experts. My immediate sense was that it was an opportunity to address issues of permission, experimentation and psychological safety in people sharing their work. Through various efforts, including International Working Out Loud week, a community of advocates have worked to make it a concept that is widely considered in the future of work.

A solution to a problem that I had been struggling with already existed. I just needed to meet the people who were leading the way. Once I saw the potential of that light, I needed to foster it by joining the forces seeking to promote the solution.

We don’t meet these serendipitous discoveries in our algorithmic bubble. We need to reach out into the realm of weak ties. This distant land out in the edges of our networks is where the shining lights are to be found. Out in that distance there are different ideas, divergent insights, diverse disciplines and unique solutions at play. Our challenge is to navigate to these edges, explore them and add our talent and support to the feeble glimmers out there. The value of diversity is that it is an accelerator in adaptation. We need to embrace the discomfort out in these alien edges because that discomfort is the power of learning.

Exploring the Shining Light at the Edges

Some times a comment resonates deeply with your current circumstances. I discovered this definitions of crisis and catastrophe on the weekend.

The last months have demonstrated to us that we we need new and better solutions in public health, in politics and in business. Those solutions won’t be in the core of your discipline or a training manual. We need to go out to the boundaries to find them, crossing disciplines, organisations and even continents.

To find these solutions we need to look in new places in our organisations. We especially need to work with those employees who are interaction at the edges, in Customer care or who might not otherwise be engaged as part of the strategy process. In times of rapid change and reduced interaction, these edge keepers are essential part of an organisation’s sense making and strategy development.

We can now look beyond the edges of our organisation and sift for serendipity in the global flow of information. The balance is always to sift the shining lights from the dross. We can get distracted at the edges, especially by social media. In a recent book on gimmicks, Prof Sianne Ngai, highlighted these characteristics:

overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks), but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention)

Social media appears at first as a labour-saving trick. It seems to offer us the ability to bring research to us. However, that experience is challenging unless we keep on our guard. There is little labour saved when we must be working to control our own attention from the ever alluring demands of the algorithmic bubble.

The challenges of innovation are known. Boundary riding is never safe nor easy. The answer is not to give up. Surrender and apathy are old solutions. Our health, our businesses and our society depends on new solutions and new approaches. Six months ago we had never heard of ‘bending a curve’, now it is a common part of global health policy in response to the pandemic. Six months ago, governments around the world were reducing benefits, now they are expanding them in creative ways. The Overton window of acceptable solutions has become volatile and expanded in this crisis as people look out for better paths and it is time for some creativity in the policy solutions and business ideas to manage our circumstances. The next phase and the next phase has yet to be invented but is lurking somewhere waiting to be discovered in the edges. We have the crisis. Let’s go looking for new solutions.

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before

Rahm Emmanuel

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