Experiment for Life

A three step plan for surviving chaos.

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Alright, on with the show.

For years, the manta around the innovation community is the only sure thing is uncertainty would increase over time.

The speed of product innovation and consumer behavior overtime was going to change. Turns out, we may have missed the big picture – although I think we understood, we just didn’t really want to talk about it.

Innovation is generally thought of as the “bigger, faster, stronger” method of creation. This is the intentional progression of new innovations that build upon the former as a way of creating a better tomorrow.

There is another well-established school of innovation. It’s called “necessity is the mother of all invention”. Circumstances force you to get creative to deal with the resulting chaos.

The primary difference between these two models is where chaos shows up. In the former, innovation by others creates uncertainty in the marketplace as options for customers to increase. In the latter, chaos is created external to the marketplace, and we are all forced to react.

One is a battery-powered car. The other is pandemic.

Take it to the bank, uncertainty will increase on both fronts. My prediction is the latter will reign supreme. A market of semi-organized innovation will be dwarfed by the acceleration of system-wide chaos – both man-made and by mother nature herself.

So why am I pointing this out? Because what is generally considered a specialized skillset – dealing with uncertainty through rapid experimentation and learning – should be a core skill taught starting at the earliest of ages.

Not only would we all benefit from keeping a curious and open mind, I believe this will eventually become a critical skill for survival.

Change may seem like it happens rapidly, but the reality is it still moves fairly slowly. Large organizations typically have just a handful of people who are dealing with or mitigating uncertainty.

In most large organizations, 99% of the organization is exclusively dedicated to executing the standard work. These processes may produce new and novel things, but they are done within accepted-as-truth assumptions in what is believed to be well-known conditions.

Only a handful, if any, are assigned to think about the unthinkable. Even in the most accepting of organizations, rare is the welcome discussion of the complete destruction of the business model, the disappearance of markets, or things like pandemics.

Those who would be most affected by the change are the least likely to see it coming. We’re wired for homeostasis, and often it takes the lever of Archimedes will get us to move.

I know, alright Chris, what’s the action here? What are you proposing? Fair question. I propose three things:

1.) Your organization should be dedicating significant resources to considering the unthinkable. When I say significant resources, I would advocate for at least a business unit the size of your product teams – minimum. Your product teams should already be oriented this way, but the type of uncertainty you’ll soon be dealing with will go beyond customer behavior and marketplace dynamics.

You can try to have everyone do 10% time, but that will be a 100% failure. For people to be effective in this work, they need to be at least 50% dedicated.

This team is here to pick your business apart. Identify every assumption, find every dependency, assign data that supports those assumptions, then build a constant stream of leading indicators that act as your early warning system.

When they make it through your whole business, they should start at the beginning and do it all again. By then, everything will have changed and all of their work will need to be evaluated. If nothing changes, something is wrong. This will be a forever process.

2.) You should do the same for the assumptions in your own life.

I am sure you have life goals. You’re going to want to do things. Travel, have kids, buy a house, open a vegan bakery…whatever it is, you are either on track or off track to achieving those goals.

Most of you reading this are in an extremely vulnerable position. I'm not a jerk – I'm lumping myself in there too.

You need to do the same work in your own life that I recommended for your organization.

You're making a lot of assumptions in your life, and most of them are wrong. In fairness, being wrong is normal and is not likely to have any effect on the outcomes you seek.

What has changed is the consequences of being wrong. The safety nets are largely gone. The stakes are higher. The ability to recover is becoming more difficult. The margin for error is shrinking.

Think you have landed that job for life at MegaCorp with great benefits and a 401K? We find comfort in that, but the data shows how your position is precarious.

You obviously can’t do this work full-time. I’m not asking you to be pessimistic. What I am asking you to do is be clear-eyed and begin to use your work skills to de-risk your own situation.

Think about what you a year from now will wish you today would be doing right now…then go do that.

3.) Tell others.

For most of us in the innovation community, our initial exposure to the theory and methods was an a-ha moment. A light went off and we got it.

It doesn’t happen like that for everyone. More likely, people haven’t been exposed to our world beyond what they learned about the scientific method in school.

Like it or not, we are in an interconnected world. That critical medication you or a loved one takes isn’t made down the road or in another state, it’s probably made on the other side of the world. And if it happens to be made down the road from you, it was developed somewhere else.

Here’s the point. As we reach a critical mass of chaos and uncertainty, we won’t have enough capacity to deal with it if we think a small band of insurgents is going to tackle the problem.

No, what is coming is an all-hands-on-deck series of events. You should reach out to others and share what you learn.

Teach them how to build. Teach them how to put themselves in the driver’s seat of their life. Teach them that chaos is a thing that can be taken head-on, understood, and dealt with systematically and logically.

We are headed in the age of great change and innovation. I personally find it very exciting. It’s time for decades to happen in months or even weeks.