building Complex Adaptive Systems.
“It is sight itself that has blinded us to nearly the entire universe.” This assessment made in an article about dark energy being the biggest mystery in the universe could equally apply to the dynamics in markets.
So what are markets? Are they just sources and streams of revenue? Or, as I’ve previously suggested, is there a fundamental values-based functionality underlying all complex adaptive systems (CAS), whose task it is to increase the shades of meaning? Discourse about long-tail markets supports a view where markets are a means for the amplification of function, arguably bringing out more and more diversity and beauty, and as a result, becoming sources of revenue.
Assuming that this is this case, I propose that organizational leadership should recognize that it needs to see differently, and that HR should facilitate learning to see differently.
Recognizing The Need To See Differently
It is easy to get used to seeing things in the same way, and as a result we often cannot clearly see why change is happening. The historian Toynbee suggested that societies decay because of their over-reliance on structures that helped them solve old problems. In fact, adopting a one-dimensional as opposed to a multidimensional view has been linked to the collapse of civilizations, and renewal and growth tied to adoption of a range of sources of innovation.
But the reality we are in — whether in an organization, a market or a country — is that each of these is a complex adaptive system, and will by definition never be the same from one moment to the next.
A way for organizational leaders to determine whether we are seeing correctly is to identify whether the level and sources of challenges are, in general, increasing or decreasing. Challenges may manifest in a variation of common business operational metrics, such as decrease in revenues and profit margins, decrease in customer acquisition rates and the typical spend of a customer, or in an increase in employee dissatisfaction and turnover.
When faced with such variation, it is easy for leaders to do more of what we always have been doing: throw more money at a problem, make cuts in the business, ramp up a marketing budget. What I suggest is that instead of doing that, begin to see the market differently, as a more and more elaborate play of the four fundamental organizational principles — knowledge, power, service and harmony — that I’ve presented in my research. The question to ask is whether we are doing what is necessary to be part of that elaboration, or are we just stunned bystanders, watching as everything gets more and more complex? If the latter, then we have to learn to see differently.
Learning To See Differently
But changing our view is not trivial, and for decades it was thought even impossible after a person had crossed a certain age. However, research on neuroplasticity suggests that learning and brain adaptation can be unending. HR needs to play a key role in making this happen by proactively putting in place programs that allow a company to lead such elaboration, rather than be mere bystanders.
Seeing markets as expressions of fourfold richness will require a different view. The good news is that as neuroplasticity suggests, such sight can be learned. Our Organizational Sciences group at Zappos has recently begun experimenting with neuroplasticity to alter the lens by which organizational dynamics, including dynamics in markets, are seen.
The structural basis of such a lens is to expedite the creation of new nodes and connections in brain-based neural networks that create a different perception or context for people, by which the same phenomena can be seen and interpreted differently.
What is important in the creation of such a lens is that these new neural networks be comprised of nodes from each of the four organizational principles. This implies that HR deliberately change operating language in appropriate circumstances so that attunement to these organizational principles is increased.
Typically, different use of language in organizational development initiatives is particularly helpful in bringing about change that catches. For example, we administered a tool to not only understand the structural makeup of some parts of the organization in terms of the four underlying organizational principles, but more importantly to initiate the creation of an internal neural network-based lens that will allow the four principles to progressively become more living as organizational principles.
Rather than have rapid responses to a large number of questions as is the common practice in assessment-type tools, we focused on a smaller set of questions designed to make a person pause and concentrate, to really figure out what is being said. Such a pause facilitates creation of an enhanced neural network. Example snippets of the uncommon language related to the key areas include:
• In the area of knowledge, we ask employees to consider “the study of life in areas outside the domain of your work.”
• In the area of service, we ask them to consider “the readiness to follow any needful self-discipline in the aim of service.”
• In the area of harmony, we ask them to consider “the sense to consider and weigh accurately all that has been done and all that remains to be done hereafter.”
• In the area of power, we ask them to consider “the urge to change the environment in accordance with some personal or respected ideals.”
A resulting and reinforced neural network then becomes the lens by which dynamics are progressively perceived differently, and will awaken a person to a new way of seeing. As a result it will become easier for leadership to proactively put in place a solution to an organizational, market or customer problem so that the all-important CAS requirement of continuing to add shades of meaning to the fourfold play is upheld. This in turn provides the juice or the opening that often initiates new markets.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” The observation by Marcel Proust could very well have been referring to neuroplasticity and the creation of new markets.