Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Ill-Defined is Good for You (aka Innovation, Adaptation, and Recovery: Part 2)

Even if you're not mathematically inclined, I hope you'll appreciate these reflections on the benefits of ambiguity in a creative organization...

I think one of the reasons I gravitated towards mathematics and computer science years ago is because I love definitions and defining things. A good definition not only creates a clear boundary of what something is and is not, but it also offers insight into what that something is good for. Defining is definitely an art.

Most of the academic papers I have read feature an entire section devoted to definitions. The "Definitions" section is always the most tedious part of the paper to read. But without it, the whole paper would stand on shaky ground. By carefully crafting his definitions, the author makes his paper consistently meaningful to a variety of readers with different experiences and expectations. Provided those readers bother to read the definitions, of course.

One odd lesson I learned writing my first technical paper was that even though the definitions section is traditionally placed near the beginning of a paper, the actual writing of the definitions is best postponed until every other section is complete.

Writing the definitions last might seem like laying the foundation only after topping off the roof of a new house. But there is a big difference between writing a paper and building a house. Whereas the architect specifies ahead of time just how the construction of a house will end, the author of a paper doesn't quite know where it's going until he's done. And only after the last insight has been revealed does the author know enough to define exactly what his paper is about.

Any creative project will evolve through a similar period of mystery. So it's no surprise that when the creative process happens individually, the creator may for a time be unable to explain what is happening, even if he wanted to.

But what happens when the creative process happens in a team? How can the team members collaborate clearly when the very nature of creativity blurs the process?

In his book "Six Degrees," Duncan Watts turns this question on its head. He explains clearly and convincingly how chronic low-grade ambiguity in a creative organization can offer powerful benefits. As co-workers collaborate toward a shared but vague goal, they renegotiate roles and responsibilities at every turn. This seeming burden actually instills the organization with the ability to adapt and recover even in the face of extraordinary challenges.

As I reviewed in a previous post, the Toyota-Aisin crisis is a remarkable case study of how a creative and relatively ill-defined organization spontaneously recovered from a catastrophe that easily could have ruined it.

New York City after 9/11 provides a similar example, also described by Watts. From the chaotic everyday process of running New York, there emerged a spontaneous collaborative recovery that returned most of Manhattan to business as usual within days. No one person knew what to do, but the experienced professionals of New York instinctively knew who to talk to, and the recovery emerged from their collective response.

Ironically, New York City did have an offical recovery plan, but it failed miserably. For example, the official emergency command control bunker was completely buried by the collapse of the World Trade Center. But no matter. The everyday business of running New York had always been collaborative improvisation, with or without a central plan.

So those of us with an urge to end ambiguity by precise definitions should be careful. In the ongoing life of a creative organization, mystery is not only the indescribable essence of creating new products and services, it is also the critical ingredient that enables collective adaptation.

If you've made it this far and are curious to read (a lot!) more about the fascinating relationship of definitions and creativity, I highly recommend "Le Ton Beau de Marot" by Douglas Hofstadter.

In the meantime, I'm going to take my next post or two away from this philosophical tack and steer more pragmatically into the nature of creative organizations.


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