Cathedral or Chaos?

October 3, 2010

The other day I gave a speech on open innovation at a conference primarily focused on open source software.

One of the presenters at the event suggested that instead of trying to create a cathedral by controlling software development, we should instead be comfortable with a mess.  The point of open source is to let creativity emerge from the mess.

I thought that was an interesting point and was curious if this is how open source really works.

Just then an audience member made a comment (paraphrased here) – “Nearly every major, successful open source software effort has been backed by (and loosely controlled) by a large group. For example,  Mozilla’s support of Firefox and Oracle’s support of Open Office.”  He listed a few others and concluded that the only one that was not organized this way was Apache.  He implied that maybe the “mess” is not best.

I’m not an open source software expert, but I don’t find that surprising.

When there is no structure, chaos ensues.  Structure, even simple structure, can help bring together people so that they can work together more efficiently AND creatively (we know that even creativity requires some structure; innovation more-so)

As the morning progressed, I realized that the conference itself was an example of what can happen when there are no controls. It quickly became apparent that there was no formal emcee, no one in charge of the running of the conference, and no well-defined agenda.

The morning plenary was scheduled to go from 9AM until 10:30AM followed by a 30 minute break.  After the break were concurrent breakouts, including the one where I was presenting.  Immediately after my speech, I would hop off the stage, hop into a taxi for the airport, and head to my next speech in Italy.

At 10:30, when the break was supposed to start, another speaker took the stage.  I assumed we were running a little late, but it was hard to tell how late since they did not list who was supposed to speak.  And then a parade of speakers continued.  It seemed like it would never end.  I think there were four or five speeches that went on after the scheduled end time.  And quite a few of the speeches were nothing more than long-winded commercials from sponsoring companies.  It was 11:30 – a 60 minute overrun on a 90 minute session – before the speeches were done.  And then, no one was given instructions.  Should they take a break?  Should they go to their breakout?  People were confused.  They did not know what to do.  I didn’t know what to do.  And I wasn’t 100% sure I would make my flight given the delay.

Although it would be an exaggeration to call this event “chaotic,” it certainly was not orderly or efficient. And it demonstrated what can happen when things are left on their own without any kind of process.

I realize that innovation requires a bit of flexibility and comfort with ambiguity.  Nothing is totally predictable in the world of innovation and you can’t schedule everything as neatly as you do in the world of operations or manufacturing.  I also agree that new ideas can emerge from chaos that might not otherwise come to the surface (reminds me of the infinite monkey theorem).  And when you have millions of people donating their time to the open source movement, the resulting inefficiency associated with the mess can be tolerated.

But can your business afford this level of inefficiency?  Probably not.  I have written frequently about the “signal-to-noise” ratio of your innovation efforts.  If you modeled your business after the “uncontrolled, mess model,” you will almost certainly end up with an extremely low signal-to-noise ratio.

The real objective of your innovation “process” is to put in just enough structure to help make it efficient, while not putting in so much that it stifles creativity.

I’ll close this post with something I wrote back in 2001 in my first book, and reused in a blog entry a year ago:

(As innovators,) we are architects of companies and industries.  An architect is not a ‘reengineer.’ To illustrate this point, I often ask clients what is the difference between an optimist, a pessimist, a reengineering consultant, and an architect. The optimist looks at a half filled glass of water and sees it as half-full. The pessimist looks at the same glass and sees it as half-empty.  The reengineering consultant sees too much glass. Cut off the top. Downsize. An architect looks at the same glass and asks questions such as “Who’s thirsty?” “Why water?” Or “Is there another way to satisfy the thirst?”

We need to architect our innovation efforts.  And in order to do that, we need to ask better questions.

In fact, one of the most critical skills for accelerating innovation is to – ask the right questions, the right way, of the right people.

With this approach, you get both the efficiency of the controlled cathedral building process and the emergent creativity associated with the messier forms of open source software.

P.S. It has been pointed out that some of my open source examples are not accurate.  I only wrote what I thought I heard, which clearly I didn’t get perfect. Even if I had the specific applications/companies wrong, the paraphrased concept came from an open source practitioner. Regardless, my focus in the article was not open source software specifically, but rather the implications for innovation in organizations. I still stand by my points of view. Even if the “mess” model works in open source, I don’t believe it can work inside of a company that wants to make money. Companies do not have unlimited access to unpaid resources.

P.P.S. The picture is one I took of St. Marks Basilica while in Venice, Italy.  Although your business might not want to create a cathedral, this one was pretty impressive!

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