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Design the process, not the outcome

February 8, 2013

Coevolution in biology  occurs when two parties exert selective evolutionary pressures on each other as a result of which they are changed.  Once that change happens, it cannot be reversed and there are many examples in nature.  Birds and flowers (illustrated), host and symbiote and so on.  It's a very useful concept when applied to human systems, and it is not just an analogy, although some of my biologist friends would disagree with me there.  One can also get pedantic about restricting the term to a single species, but that need not concern us here.

In management science it offers an interesting alternative to the either/or dichotomies against which I railed yesterday.  By increasing the interaction between things we increase the co-evolutionary pressure on both entities so that what emerges will be more resilient.  We don't design the outcome, we design the processes of interaction and monitor for emergence.  In order to do that we have to think about the granularity, or modularity (if you prefer) of the things and the nature of their interactions.   Now the principles are easy, but the practice requires more discipline than conventional management.  I'll give two illustrations of where this is useful:

  • Understanding unarticulated user needs in system design.  Instead of sending out analysts to interview people about what they need, we gather stories of day to day activities, frustrations and desires as micro-narratives.  This is the journaling function of SenseMaker® but it can be done with other social computing tools, although without the metadata advantages.  As those needs cluster we start to develop prototypes to test technology capability to satisfy those needs while continuing the journal capture.  With an object orientated architecture this means that applications will evolve, over time.
  • Merging informal networks post merger or re-organisation.   Again, list most aspects of human sense-making this can use narrative. Capturing the foundation stories of each organisation using The Future Backwards then merging the groups allows the creation of common turning points, insights into the way that each organisation works. Identifing each organisations archetypes of each other and of themselves enables deeper. richer conversations.  A non-narrative technique, social network stimulation creates self-organising merged communities across silos.

Now we can do the same for customer needs and product development and many other areas.  The key aspect of this is early interaction at a finely grained level.  Designing for that is a key skill, but one which encourages innovation and will produce more resilient solutions.   I'll be blogging with more detail on all of these over the coming months.  

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