Welcome! Within these pages, I will explore the many facets of compelling ideas I've encountered with the hope that you will find inspiration for your own life. I encourage you to explore some of the Big Ideas that I support with my time and energy. Also, check out the Spark Chamber where we can explore possibilities together.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Complex systems fail in complex ways

With all of the talk about gun control, the Boston Marathon bombing, the fertilizer factory explosion, terrorism, etc. the expression "complex systems fail in complex ways" keeps jumping to mind. This saying was drilled into my head during my engineering days. The lesson of the expression is that when you have a complex system with many layers, controls, redundancies and human processes, cataclysmic failure is caused by the highly improbable concurrence of a number of small "innocent" failures rather than a single smoking gun. 

Take the classic example of the Three Mile Island disaster where there were four distinct failure modes (learn more) that eventually led to the largest nuclear reactor crisis in United States history.  In normal operation any one of the failure events would have been noticed and corrected by other controls and safeguards, but in this case, they all lined up just right so that the system failed.

Here is a great read ... How Complex Systems Fail. It's only 4 pages and provides a wonderful overview. I strongly recommend that everyone take a moment to read it. Now take another moment to digest it.

Keep this in mind when you ponder the Monday morning quarterbacking: Why didn't the FBI take action on the Russian tip? Why didn't the company report its chemicals to Homeland Security? Why don't we identify people with mental health issues? Questions like these all imply that redoubling efforts to solve one issue will make us safer, when in reality, it is more like wack-a-mole. Fix one problem, and another pops out. In fact, layering on more controls and processes may have the opposite effect -- making the system more complex and therefore subject to even more complex modes of failure. 

When we look at our world and observe that there is too much poverty, not enough education, too much malnutrition, not enough economic growth, to much violence, or any other "problem", it is helpful to keep in mind that these are outcomes of complex systems.  There won't be a silver bullet, and we can't just pass a law or fund a new program to make it better.  Instead, we need to look at the problem from a different perspective and think about the system as a whole.

This is why fostering innovation is so important.  It is through innovation that the system can be simplified or made more successful.  It is through innovation that new approaches can be tried, tested and allowed to succeed (or fail).  It is through innovation that big ideas can disrupt the status quo.  By creating an environment that encourages and supports innovation, we give ourselves the best chance for changing our world for the better.



Friday, April 19, 2013

Put the Ideapreneur at the center

In working to improve innovation capacity in the social sector here in Hartford, I have noticed a troubling phenomenon. While there are a lot of promising ideas out there, most of them never see the light of day.  It truly is a rarity for an idea to be vetted and discussed in depth, much less to be tried out and tested.

Perhaps this is not surprising.  In order for an idea to be realized a number of unlikely events must occur.  First, the person with the idea must think highly enough about the idea to do something with it.  This requires self-confidence and perhaps a safe place to share and develop it.  This is tough, really tough, and could be a topic for its own conversation.  

Then, the idea must be translated into a form that makes it understandable or implementable.  I've met many (and I do mean many!) people with ideas that make perfect sense in their heads, but then cannot be communicated or executed in a way that results in success.  It's not enough to have a vision, there must be a path to that vision.

Next, an idea must be executed.  This is not a linear or straightforward process.  Instead, trial and error is the norm.  One tactic is tried and succeeds.  Another fails. Two steps forward, one back.  It takes perseverance to see an idea through.  It takes what some might view is a special person to make it happen.

The idea must be successful in meeting its objectives as well.  An idea that doesn't meet its goals is, by definition, a failure.  Sometimes, though, it is difficult to recognize that the idea has failed, so it is important to identify successes and failures as early as possible.  Careful evaluation and good decision making are key.

Finally, the idea must sustain in every way.  People must continue to support and execute it.  It must continue to succeed in its goals.  It must "pay" for itself through some form of funding, revenue, or volunteer support.

Idea incubators like CountMeIn!Hartford are designed to help.  Starting with a belief that anyone can be a change-maker, the incubator places the ideapreneur at the center.  The incubator provides the structure, the safe place, the access to resources, and the support to ensure that the ideapreneur has every chance at success.  It is through this intentional focus on supporting the ideapreneur that great ideas will flourish and perhaps change the world.