Are you too optimized?

15 Apr 2006|Lee Shupp

I recently spent a weekend in Santa Fe learning about chaos, complexity, and social network theory at the annual conference of the Association of Professional Futurists. It was a fabulous weekend with stellar speakers, including Mark Klein of MIT and Cristopher Moore of the University of New Mexico and Santa Fe Institute. Cris gave a fabulous talk entitled Diversity: A Weapon of Mass Construction, that contained some very interesting insights about complex systems that has some application to business organizations.

Cris simplified complexity theory to strip it down to three basic components of complex systems that describes how they self organize and evolve.
Selective– this is a system in its primal state, with every man for himself and very little cooperation or shared goals that transcend basic survival and self interest.
Synergistic– this is a system in its next step of evolution, when individual actors begin to share goals that transcend basic survival and self interest. Because there are few rules and constraints, actors have great flexibility in how they self organize to accomplish shared goals.
Optimized– this is a system in its highest state of evolution, with established rules and procedures, organized ways of doing things, and the efficiency that comes with each actor performing a specialized function. Actors have far less flexibility to innovate, but the system hums along at maximal efficiency.
Cris pointed out that organizations naturally evolve into the optimized state as the grow, get bigger, and self organize for efficiency. But the optimized state is rigid and inflexible, impeding innovation. His basic point, which strongly resonated with me, is this: is you find yourself in a system that is optimized, you should think about reducing structure and impediments to innovation. Break or undo some rules. Throw out the playbook and improvise. Depart from standard operating procedure, and look at the world through a different lens.

I wondered: Do you find yourself constrained by the structure of systems in which you are a part? Is your organization too optimized? Is your life too optimized? Maybe it’s time to break some rules!

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