Humanist Society: How Does Innovation and Revolution Happen?
By Robert Bernstein
Cultural Evolution: The Darwinian Basis of Change and Innovation and Why it is Important – Part 2
Peter Compo very kindly agreed to return to finish his November Humanist Society talk on the similarities of cultural and biological evolution. How both are in fact a Darwinian process of variation and destructive selection.
He has kindly shared his new slides which are posted here.
The key message in his November talk? That nothing is ever created from scratch in the way that people think is possible or desirable. Whether it is a work of art, architecture or technology, everything created by the human mind is actually the next addition to what existed already. And the addition is not fully planned, but arises from adaptive mechanisms of Darwinian evolution.
Yes, the creator deserves some credit for their hard work and for their unique creations. But everything is a modification of something that came before.
His December talk aimed to deal with practical effects of this insight:
What are the implications for innovating and strategy?
What are revolutions?
He said that the theory of strategy has been waiting for the insights of Darwinian Cultural Evolution.
He brought back his Emergent Approach slide:
He gave a typical example of a corporate "strategy":
"Increase sales in emerging markets by 10% per year over the next five years without losing position in established markets."
That may be a goal. But it is not a strategy.
So the corporate management will granualarize the original goal into many sub goals. Things like:
"Reduce asset footprint by $120M through strategic partnerships."
"Develop capability to deliver and commercialize new product requests faster than competition and to customer expectations."
These lists of sub-goals and plans are seductive. They seem to cover everything. Everyone in the corporate meeting seems happy that their bullet point made it on the list!
He pointed out that goals and lists as a replacement for strategy is common in all fields. He gave the Zimbabwe National Health Strategy 2009-2013 as another example. Same fallacy: Sub-goals and plans, but not a strategy.
What is the purpose of strategy? To get you from the current state A to the future state B. You need innovation to achieve the goal of reaching B. Something new. New understanding. A new physical entity. A new tool, machine, computer or software perhaps.
It is hard to do this. He presented an "Influence Diagram" that is shaped like a flute. You start with the future state on the right and work backwards to the left.
Such a diagram reveals the challenges in innovating. The diagram shows that the number of choices grows exponentially to the left. All these choices need to be consistent with each other. There is a time delay between choices and effects. And many influences are outside your control.
The purpose of strategy is to bring all of these choices together in a coherent way. It has to take into consideration the uncertainties caused by time delays and influences outside of your control.
He gave the example of a financial portfolio. You can't know which stock will succeed. You make a diverse portfolio. Those that succeed will make up for those that fail.
When creating a strategy to achieve a goal it is important to understand what bottleneck is blocking access to the goal. He gave this example: "Customers will not pay for quality and performance".
He offered possible solutions:
Reduce the features (if this reduces the cost).
Create a second tier offering with a new brand to avoid contamination of the top tier product.
Launch a massive ad campaign to teach why the top tier product is worth it.
He gave an example of Pope Gregory who ruled from 540-604. Gregory offered a counter-intuitive way to deal with spreading Christianity to pagans. Instead of trying to fight them, he said it was better to let them keep their traditional beliefs and religious observances. As long as they can be harmonized with Christianity.
The pagans were OK with this. They got to keep their holidays and their pantheon of gods. Christianity in turn assimilated these pagan traditions which gave them holidays like Christmas and Easter.
Katherine Shurik spoke up at this point as an anthropologist. She noted that the Mayans considered the ceiba tree to be sacred. They symbolized it with a cross. So, when Christianity came to their region, they just added it to their pantheon.
Compo returned again to music as in his first talk. He pointed out that while jazz improvisation is held up as the epitome of creativity, not all jazz is creative. There must be discipline, as there is in all creative endeavors. He cited jazz composer, pianist and educator Billy Taylor that creativity doesn't come as a bolt from the sky. It is about preparing yourself.
Compo repeated his point that even if you have goals and plans the future ends up different than you planned.
Judy Flattery added an example from her work doing interior design. You start with a kernel of an idea. You go through a big catalog of rugs. You choose a rug by eliminating the ones that you don't want. A "destructive" process.
Compo noted that management often does not get this. They wonder why you have to look at so many rugs. Why not just pick the "right" one from the start?
Compo went on to talk about Revolution and the surprising conclusion that evolution is NOT the opposite of Revolution!
He contrasted two ways in which the term revolution is used. In the first, something large is destroyed in a short time, like a political revolution destroying the current order. He pointed out that this destruction can be planned.
In the second meaning, something dramatically new is created. That can't be planned. And it may take a very long time. No one planned the Industrial Revolution. And no one planned the development of democracy in England over centuries.
He gave the example of political revolution that ended up with very little change. Is Putin really much different from the czars?
I challenged him by noting that we had a speaker a few years ago who talked of very rapid and radical change that occurred in Denmark. Only a hundred years ago it was a poor, backward, religious country.
They took one step that made all the difference: Public and social services had been provided by the Church. Instead, the government took over providing these services. The result was a dramatic increase in quality of life and a dramatic decline of religion.
Compo agreed that this is an example of revolutionary change for the better. But he claimed that those who initiated the change probably had no idea how revolutionary the change would be.
Think about the analogy of destructive revolutions in biology: Mass extinctions. The Chicxulub asteroid wiped out non-avian dinosaurs in 250,000 years. This cleared the way for mammals.
But it took 35 million years for mammals like the Entelodont to evolve. Destruction in nature can be very fast, but creation of a new species is gradual. He reminded us of the evolution of the eye from his previous talk. It took 100 million years for the eye to evolve.
"The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" was published by Elizabeth Kolbert about the current mass extinction caused by humans. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. She claimed that this extinction is not "natural". That it is not Darwinian because humans are causing it to occur rapidly.
Compo said that her conclusion is incorrect. The 6th mass extinction that humans are causing is still Darwinian. Darwinian destruction can be very fast and humans are part of nature, too. The human destruction of our planet is an example of Darwinian cultural-evolution.
In his last example, he showed a truly awful example of a mistaken "strategy": The "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" published by the National Security Council in 2005. An immense list of plans and sub-goals, 318 list items total. You can view it online.
It was not a strategy at all. It was all about creating a Western style democracy in Iraq. But they completely ignored the bottleneck that would prevent that. They just described what it might look like if it ever came to be.
It was easy to destroy what existed in Iraq. Not at all easy to create something new.
So if evolution is not the opposite of revolution, what is? Drift. An aimless random walk.
Compo ended his talk by provoking thought of how evolutionary theory might offer another insight: The difference between liberal vs conservative approaches to change and progress.
Matt Ridley is a conservative member of the British House of Lords. But he loves to write about evolution. His credo is that markets must be free to evolve. "Free markets raise all ships" is approximately what he claims. No one ever planned a great economy or business.
But Compo noted that without some management you will get great inequalities. Losers just lose and die in nature. 98% of all species are now extinct.
Compo then pointed out that the liberal approach looks more like managing by goals, which is against the theory of strategy by adaption. He said that liberals want to fix the One Percent having so much money directly with policies like wealth redistribution based on high taxation.
Compo calls himself a "militant centrist". Something much different than a simple combination of liberal and conservative ideas, he said.
My editorial comments:
Liberals that I know support taxing the wealthy to invest in visionary projects that serve the public interest. This is a win-win for delivering vital long term gains while providing quality jobs.
In the case of The Sixth Extinction, I think this "natural" issue is closely related to the idea of free will vs determinism. Yes, humans are determined by the laws of physics and are a part of "nature". But we do have the ability to recognize problems and to envision a better future.
Compo makes an important contribution by showing us how difficult it is to create a truly "original" vision of the future. And how difficult it is to develop the best strategy to get there. He shows us the importance of knowing our limitations, of knowing the full source of our "creativity" and of being open to new options as we evolve culturally.
But it is just as important that we feel a sense of agency as individuals. And that we trust in our ability to envision and build a better future as a society.