Innovation or Mutation?

In her McKinsey Quarterly article, “Creating Value in the Age of Distributed Capitalism,” Shoshana Zuboff writes, “What’s the difference (between innovations and mutations)? Innovations improve the framework in which enterprises produce and deliver goods and services. Mutations create new frameworks.”

This is a powerful distinction. “Doing what we currently do better” is different (by the way, not “better or worse” — both of these may be needed and/or desirable based on the situation) than “doing something brand new.” We encourage a deeper understanding of the Strategic Patterns that both create and need to be created to move between three States that are inherent in all business systems.

We have identified States in the Complexity Space™ Framework (CSF), as an Ecosystem level view of Strategic “Meta Patterns” – the organization’s business intent. Some organizations work hard to stay the same; to maintain the Status Quo. Other teams and organizations have as their goal to change the status quo; pursuing Innovation – making evolutionary changes to better cope with internal or external needs for change. Yet other organizations challenge themselves to create revolutionary change – inventing something new; a brand new paradigm, a new suite of products, services, or technology. We’ve named this third set of objectives Mutation.



Another useful way to consider these distinctions graphically adapts Ralph Stacy’s “Landscape Diagram,” where the distinctions might look something like the image on the left. In the lower left-hand corner is the “status quo.” This is a system’s “business as usual” space, where everyone involved knows what to do and what results to expect. This space is comfortable and predictable. This is the part of the landscape where, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Sometimes, either internal or external forces or both make the status quo unacceptable. The stimulus or disruptions for those changes might come from either inside or outside of the organization. Within the Complexity Space™ Framework, disruptions are the triggers that can instigate “disrupting patterns” for change in the Ecosystems States.

Organizations strive for increases in quality, cost, timeliness, compliance, customer satisfaction, or employee satisfaction. Perhaps an employee survey returns disappointing results, or an internal or external audit highlights significant non-conformances. In these situations, systems are motivated to move beyond the “status quo” to “doing what they’re currently doing better.”

Some organizations have been successful in turning that mindset into a system-wide pattern in its own right. They have embedded it in their Ecosystem Dimensions. “Continuous improvement” becomes part of their culture; part of their shared motivation; part of their history.

Yet there are times when a culture of innovation can be dangerous to a system’s long term survival and prosperity. Another piece of folk wisdom is that “there is nothing more frustrating than doing efficiently a task which should have never been done at all.” Imagine you manufacture 3.5” floppy diskettes (Remember them?). You are proud of your product and continuously innovate to make the cases more sturdy, the protective slides more reliable, the colors more attractive and the packaging more eco-friendly. How did that work for you? How about being a Swiss analog watch maker in the 1970s – just before the invention of the quartz movement, battery-operated watch?

Other disruptions  jolt the system. They are “paradigm shifts”; disruptive technologies; “disturbances in the force” as Obi Wan Kanobe said in Star Wars. obiwan  These shocks to the existing patterns require very different responses than “do what we currently do better.” They move us to the upper right-hand quadrant of the Landscape Diagram. Here, there is little agreement about what to do, and even less of idea of whether what we try will work. The very patterns that served us so well before may now serve as constraints – preventing us from engaging in the bold new thinking needed for survival and success.

These distinctions create several challenges and opportunities for your complex adaptive system:

  • Where are you now in the Landscape Diagram? An assessment of of how the organization’s Ecosystem Dimensions support or antagonize the objective to move from one State to another helps catalyze and focus this conversation.
  • Is disruption needed or desired? If so, which type? Answering this question will require great discernment by the organization. Jim Collins, in his book, “Built to Last,” states that organizations need to “take a hard, unflinching look at the reality of their marketplace.” This is a great time to utilize the principles and tools of engagement and “liberating structures.”
  • If disruption is needed, how will you go about the process of creating it? Commanding the organization to shift paradigms seems a lot like making the statement, “On the count of three, I want you to be spontaneous. One … Two … Three!” A more effective strategy is to focus attention on the organization’s eco-levers which we name Catalysts in the CSF.  Making deliberate interventions to shift the engagement, connections, experiments, diversity, questions, and leadership within the system will result in short-term shifts to the organization’s relationships. These, in turn, provide the potential for shifting the dimensions of the longer-term ecosystem dimensions.
  • Finally, how will you know it is working? One of the “inconvenient truths” of complex systems is that they are continuously emerging, self-organizing, and adapting. Even as your organization is doing the steps above, it continues to operate in a larger context that is continually influencing it and being influenced by it.

The answers to these questions create the conditions for organizations to move between States with a new set of “data” that provides insights into the behavorial pattern shifts throughout the system.  Zubroff’s conclusion aligns with our thinking and reinforces the need for organizations to develop a different set of evaluations to respond to the changing world around them:

The pattern of change is one of overlapping and interwoven fields of transition rather than clean, unidirectional breaks. For those of us living through these transitions, they can be confusing and frustrating; resources invested in innovation serve only to fix what was, bringing us no closer to the future. But these times are also rich with unique opportunities for companies able to decipher the emerging pattern of mutation and to convert that understanding into new business models that support the complex needs of the 21st-century individual.

We Invite you to share your stories, questions and even disagreements with our articles because that is the only way we can continue to make sure Complexity Works!

Learn more about the Complexity Space™ Framework, with our book, “Complexity Works!” at

Building Leadership Capacity in the “Grey Zone”

Business leaders excel at managing highly controlled environments. They are also reconciled to the challenges of trying to control random or catastrophic events.

Our work in organizations is frequently driven by a request to innovate, implement, sustain, and evolve internal systems in the “grey zone” – the areas of organizations where there is continuous change, emergence, and self-organization. The Complexity Space™ Framework is a robust tool for developing a new executive mindset – recognizing the depth and breath of opportunities for demonstrable change in the “grey zone.”

Conventional wisdom believes that the most desirable operating environments are those that run like “well-oiled machines,”  embodying the highest standards of quality, consistency and predictability – a “white swan.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, “black swans” (made widely popular after Nassim Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, are conditions or scenarios so highly improbable that even the greatest managers cannot plan or predict for them, so they are acknowledged to be outside of their immediate scope of control.


If you ask a business manager to rank the situations they are best prepared to handle — white swan, black swan or grey swan events, what’s the result?

  1. White swans because they know how to respond.
  2. Black swans because they need to react to survive.
  3. Grey swans – huh???

The results are not surprising when you consider the traditional standards by which leaders plan and operate.  Processes from the traditional management playbook offer researched and tested protocols for improving an organization’s operations and sustaining an engaged and innovative culture.  Executive mindsets have been fine-tuned to lead their organizations in a systematic way from their current state to a desired future state – in the company of white swans.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, borrowing from process models currently part of an organization’s business strategy, leaders are trained to employ crisis management protocols to deal with disruptive and unexpected event that threaten to harm the organization, its stakeholders, or the general public – the increasingly inevitable black swans.

Organizational ecosystems seldom embody only the qualities of white or black swans – they are also populated by grey swans, which exist in large part because of the increasing  complexity in business systems. Grey swans swim in this vast zone, where leaders are required to focus their innovation, insights and management attention. The organizations we support have begun to recognize the importance on building leadership capacity to address the organizational impact of grey swans by understanding the “waters” in which they swim.

As a side note, Wikipedia’s entry on Grey provides another level of metaphoric pondering. “In America and Europe, grey is one of the least popular colors; In a European survey, only one percent of men said it was their favorite color, and thirteen percent called it their least favorite color; the response from women was almost the same. According to color historian Eva Heller, “grey is too weak to be considered masculine, but too menacing to be considered a feminine color. It is neither warm nor cold, neither material nor spiritual. With grey, nothing seems to be decided.”

We enjoy shifting executives’ perception away from operating in the “grey” as the space where “nothing seems to be decided.” Recognizing the continuously changing properties of the grey zone offers critical opportunities for data collection, iterative analysis, prioritization of experiments and ultimately, intelligent disruption.

It is an unfortunate fact that grey swans can’t simply be painted white — or that our organizations cannot be continually turned into highly organized, controlled and predictive environments. Within a complexity and pattern-based system the goal is not to white-out the variation out of a system, but rather to develop a fluid process that continuously moves from its current state towards a desired state while acknowledging the complex realities and benefits of the “grey zone.”

We Invite you to share your stories, questions and even disagreements with our articles because that is the only way we can continue to make sure Complexity Works!

Learn more about the Complexity Space™ Framework, with our book, “Complexity Works!” at

The Business Effectiveness Layer…5 Years Later

Author’s Note: If we had posted this in July 2011 when it was drafted, we would have offered many similar observations but we did not have the Complexity Space Framework — our pattern-based model for change.

The original draft referenced a research report from Constellation Research (which is no longer available) which presented an interesting perspective on how people management technology, could provide a new framework for delivering business results.

“With mounting pressures on business leaders to get the most from their people to hit targets, technologies that manage and optimize people are increasingly at the forefront of strategic investments.  As a result, technology leaders will face significant HR technology decisions in the next three years.  However, legacy frameworks and decision criteria focus on HR itself – separate from business.  The time has come to fully connect HR technology to the business.  What’s more, “HR” technology provides too limited a view of what needs to be achieved.  The technology picture needs to focus on infusing people decisions and business decisions together – focusing on solving business problems, not further enhancing HR capabilities.”   Originally from Constellation Research

Consider the Business Effectiveness Layer

We have always been intrigued by an organization’s unrelenting drive to gain control over their business ecosystems. With the potential for even greater efficiency between people, processes and data, organizations embraced the triad of technology frameworks that Constellation defined as the “Business Effectiveness Layer” – HR (human capital) technology, big data and predictive analytic technology and enterprise business process/management technology.

Fast forward more than five years and developing a “Business Effectiveness Layer” is still part of many strategic conversations. We all agree that the need to infuse people decisions with business decisions and visa versa is an important first step toward understanding that people and the outcomes of business strategy are inexorably interconnected. Yet, organizations keep confronting the same “kinds” of challenges.

The challenges continue to resurface when overarching change initiatives are implemented because the underlying system-wide “patterns” inherent in the organization are unseen, unaddressed and unused. When we first encountered the theory and use of patterns in our work, we immediately recognized the need to define, simplify and integrate this concept into language and applications that could reorient business practices for new conversations and significantly different outcomes.

This is where the Complexity Space™ Framework (CSF) offers value in conjunction with the analytic and connective properties of technology and data across organizational domains. At the pattern-based level, we have identified several categories of patterns that exist between and throughout external and internal systems.

Defining (Awareness) Patterns for seeing, understanding and developing the macro conditions for organizational change. They are represented in the CSF by Dimensions (Ecosystem-wide Patterns) and States (strategic “Meta Patterns”).

Action Patterns for developing tactical, adaptive, and agile approaches for continual assessment and response to behaviors and actions when implementing Pattern-based change. They are represented by Catalysts (actions for Pattern-based change) and Indicators (Pattern movements).

Traversing Patterns for navigation and linkage within an internal Ecosystem and between external Ecosystems. They are represented by Linkages and the Navigation Process.

We have also defined episodic Event Patterns called Disruptions, which highlight critical points for evaluating, responding to, or initiating major internal or external pattern shifts.

Working with Patterns affords greater agility and insight into the relationships among the parts of the organization which are often unrecognized or invisible but still essential to the overall health and development of the business.

We believe the development of lenses, language, and distinctions regarding patterns are critical to understanding the relationship between those individual human behaviors and the organization’s Ecosystem(s) – the “patterns in context” which influence everyone and everything interacting within that complex system.

Patterns provide both the structure and the vehicle for change. They are flexible and robust, and are useful in any complex system. The opportunity for these new tools will be the ability to integrate an adaptive approach to evaluating and matching the business and people issues in complex business scenarios, while offering an ongoing engagement between the external data, internal HR, and business functions.

We hope you will share your stories, questions and even disagreements with our articles because that is the only way we can continue to make sure Complexity Works!

Learn more about the Complexity Space™ Framework, with our book, “Complexity Works!” at



How Do You Learn?

Much attention is paid to what we learn. We test for content acquisition and toast our subject matter experts.

Make no mistake – content certainly matters. However, we live in a time where the “half-life” of knowledge is shrinking dramatically and “fake news” and “alt-facts” abound.

The ability to separate the “wheat from the chaff” and make sense of overwhelming and often contradictory data is key. The way we learn – our approach to the learning process – plays a key role in our ability to do that.

In our work, we focus attention on identifying and influencing the patterns that are a hallmark of complex systems like teams and organizations. In this post, we invite you to explore your patterns of learning.

New language for discussing patterns will help. In the Complexity Space™ Framework (CSF) we introduce four “Dimensions” of organizational ecosystems: History, Context, Culture, and Motivation. Consider each of these in the context of your past and present approach to learning. Questions you might ask yourself include:

  • How were you taught in your early years? How was that the “same or different” in high school and college? How are you being taught now?
  • How big were the classes? Who were the people in class with you? How diverse were they? How are classes and shared learning structured  now?
  • How did you interact with the teacher/professor/instructor? Were you passively listening to lectures? Working in small groups? Participating in case studies and exercises? What is your engagement style now?
  • Why were you there? Because K-12 state laws and professional requirements mandated you be there? To please your parents? Because you needed to be for your job? Because you wanted to? What is your motivation to learn today?

Note the answers to these (and the other dozens of questions you might ponder) transcend any particular subject – they provide glimpses into your larger pattern of learning. If these patterns continue to work for you, great! With insight and knowledge of specific learning patterns, you can manage your learning experience to be sure those elements are present.

What if those patterns are not working for you? Why not change something in your learning patterns to better meet your needs and preferences? In the CSF, we identify seven “Catalysts”; seven “moves you can make” to influence any set of patterns. They include conducting “intelligent experiments” with one or more of the Catalysts to begin changing some aspect or combination of how learning happens for you: 1) Connections; 2) Risk Taking; 3) Leadership; 4) Organizational Structures; 5) Systems; 6) Stories; and 7) Processes.

Like the “Dimensions” we introduced earlier, digging into the more precise pattern-shifting language and actions of Catalysts might lead to the following kinds of explorations:

  • Who am I currently learning with? Might I change my learning partners to be more like me? From a different profession or with a different skill set?
  • How much am I pushing myself in the learning choices I make? Am I pushing myself? Putting myself in a position to succeed? Forcing myself into learning methods that I know don’t work well for me (e.g. self-paced learning)?
  • What stories do I tell myself about learning? Do I moan and complain? Tell myself I’m too old, too dumb, too rusty, too lazy?  What if I changed that self-talk?
  • How do I approach the process of learning? Do I properly prepare? Take notes? Control my learning environment? Use appropriate time, project, and learning management tools for support?

Note the use of the word “explorations” in the first sentence of the prior paragraph. Part of the challenge of dealing with complex systems is that there are no “guaranteed” solutions when it comes to changing your learning patterns. Having said that, we are confident that being intentional about changing something that does not serve you, noticing the results, and deciding on the “next smart step” will allow new possibilities to emerge.

We end this post about learning with three of our favorite quotes:

  • “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”
  • “Insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result.”
  • “There is no failure unless there is failure to learn.”

What did you learn from reading this today?

We hope you will share your stories, questions and even disagreements with our articles because that is the only way we can continue to make sure Complexity Works!

Ask for a Story to Learn Something New

How has your organization’s training and development strategies changed in the past ten years?  During this same period, “digital and mobile” have caused a breathtaking shift in how customers, employees and organizations access, consume and contribute to the expanding ecosystems of knowledge.

Early iterations of the Complexity SpaceTM Framework (CSF) were piloted during engagements for organizational “learning and knowledge management” strategies.  We have consistently based our work on the premise that complex human systems –organizational ecosystems– are non-linear; that is, they don’t operate in strict “cause and effect,” “do this and that is guaranteed to happen” ways. Rather they operate over time in larger patterns, patterns that can be identified, analyzed, and influenced – though not necessarily with the results we intend.

Before the Red Lens and Blue Lens Paradigm

Although we had not yet formalized our two distinct yet complementary paradigms in the CSF, (“Red Lens” and “Blue Lens” Paradigms), we helped clients to see the explicit differences in learning processes that were governed by the rules of each. The Red Lens Paradigm underlies many widely accepted learning processes. The foundation of that set of beliefs is that learning is a linear process, governed by the rules of cause and effect. As a result, teaching a person is like fixing a machine. Figure out what is needed. Follow the instruction manual. Get results. Repeat when needed.

In direct contrast to a mechanistic approach, we introduced the metaphor of an organization as a garden where the outcomes were emergent and continually influenced by any number of factors (weather, soil quality, seeds, fertilizer, experience of the gardener, etc.). Gardens are always changing and “the practice” of growing and cultivating is continual.

Seen through the “Blue Lens” Paradigm, this point of view emphasizes that what is “learned” and continually adapted is infinitely more complex than what is “taught.” We focused on the connections, relationships and exchanges between individuals, teams, functions, organizations, communities, or societies as a complex process – one governed by different principles than are typically associated with traditional training and development. (In the CSF, we have defined these overarching conditions as “Meta Patterns” that span the core elements of the Complexity Space™ Framework)

Learning within an organization is as complex as the rapidly changing forms of information resources and engagements. Developing learning and development strategies refocus the learning approach to create a synergy between the system and individual to adapt to emerging fundamentals/changes in their ecosystems(environments). We encouraged clients to accept that learning is not solely about finding a fix.

The Myth of the Permanent Fix

Many organizations approach their training and development programs as fixes for their mounting business challenges.  For most organizations, the time and resources available to design and implement a program that results in a permanent fix is not a viable business strategy in complex business environments.

We believe that permanent fixes are a myth. So how does the CSF”s approach to learning focus on acquiring, adapting and applying the “fix that fits” now to help productivity, profitability and employee development?

For purposes of this discussion, we will jump ahead to the point in the project where we have already identified gaps in existing program effectiveness and are going to begin to introduce “Catalysts” as the primary change stimulant for the retooling of the T & D strategy.

As we were developing the Complexity SpaceTM Framework, we described Catalysts as “levers” that people interested in influencing complex systems could push, pull and pivot to perturb the system’s current patterns.

Although “levers” is a familiar mechanical term, we believe that the concept of a chess piece, specifically the queen, more accurately represents the act of making moves that create intentional shifts in patterns. We selected the queen to represent Catalysts because it has the greatest number of possible moves available to it.

Tell me a Story

Helping clients shift their training strategies to focus on the learning process itself rather than any specific subject being taught has never been easier. First and foremost is the change in the availability of information and knowledge repositories, interactive learning environments and software, facilitators, experts and peers willing to engage and collaborate; and learners as co-creators who add their feedback and experience for real-time application. As each student forges their own path by polling and engaging with the best resources and most useful guidance to address their unique learning needs, how does the organization leverage this learning throughout the organization?

Ask for a Story

When you ask for a story, you are inviting a deeper level of input and diverse perspectives. Ask for a story to find out how someone (or a team) solved a problem when no one else could. Ask for a story to let employees know that you are listening and that what they share builds new insights and “linkages” throughout the organization. Ask for a story to learn something new.

We have found that stories are one of the most powerful ways to link individual and group behaviors contextually to learning. Learners want actual experiences with what they are being asked to learn as much as they want the correct “answers” to the questions.  When we were told by the Chief Learning Officer of a large organization that “Employees aren’t listening to us any more, they’re listening to each other, so what do we do?” we were ready to respond.

We worked through a familiar training design and suggested a few easy alterations:

  1. As you identify the need for training, ask everyone who will be included in the training to (tell a story) describe their top training class or program experience.
  2. Specify desired outcomes to include both immediate and longer term employee (learner) engagement with the content/skill development. Link outcomes with both how participants apply and share what they have learned.
  3. Design training options that deliver flexible access and learning paths, with active networks for open engagement. Reward active engagements and contributions with special attention to employees who add resources, ideas, and stories for how the learning was applied, adjusted, changed etc.
  4. Use participant assessment differently by getting immediate feedback for the program by asking no more than 5 questions. In order to get “credit” for the program ask participants to share how this training has shifted a behavior or action in their work or personal time.

What patterns changed for our client? Lots –remember, when you change one aspect of an interconnected, complex system the rest of it will most likely change in some way as well. For the client, training was integrated into weekly micro- learning opportunities that became known as “show and tells” with employees taping the sessions for those who could not attend. Employees not only requested more and new training, they often suggested fellow employees as “teachers.”

We know that stories are one of the most efficient and powerful ways to generate motivation for change — and isn’t learning really about learning how to change?

So who was listening to who?

We hope you will share your stories, questions and even disagreements with our articles because that is the only way we can continue to make sure Complexity Works!