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What makes your breakthrough useful?

News of amazing breakthroughs that can – maybe – help solve pressing societal problems in healthcare, energy, economic development, and other areas arrives daily. Yet problems persist, because breakthroughs become useful only if they are integrated with other aspects of the situation.

We hype physical breakthroughs in science and technology while ignoring the grunt work of bringing them into use. History puts making physical breakthroughs useful into perspective. In the late 19th century, modern industrial society arose around major physical breakthroughs in steam power, electricity, steel and chemicals, transportation, and mass production. But historians point out that it took major breakthroughs in social technologies to make these physical technologies useful according to Chandler in The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977) and Pisano in “The Evolution of Science-Based Business: Innovating How We Innovate”, Industrial and Corporate Change (2010). Societies collectively developed new social technologies for figuring out entire operation systems, breaking these systems down into separate parts to be optimized separately, and scaling it all up. Societies also developed new social technologies for control with top down hierarchies of precise roles for legions of workers, defining clear goals, and identifying the  most efficient means to achieve them. Clock-time social technologies like schedules and time and motion studies coordinated entire systems.

Economic problems in the early 21st century again require major breakthroughs in social technologies to put new physical technologies to use. According to Nelson in Technology Institutions and Economic Growth (2005):

Today, some of our most difficult problems involve developing the social technologies needed to make new physical technologies effective. Arguably the lion’s share of the strains in our health care systems are the result of advances in physical and medicinal technologies that societies have not yet learned how to manage or pay for.

However, nineteenth century social technologies can’t make 21st century physical breakthroughs useful. Current societal problems are complex, so innovators must discover all the parts and, more importantly, create the possible system that might integrate the parts to generate actual value. Managers cannot rely on top-down command and control or short term schedules, because possible solutions emerge unpredictably. Instead, managers must establish directions and boundaries to shape action, but continually tune the process based on emergent outcomes as these unfold.

Image credit: Windmills at the windmill farm Middelgrunden by Andreas Klinke Johannsen. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

I will outline three aspects of the 21st century social technologies that can make breakthroughs useful.

First, figure out what your breakthrough depends on to accomplish its potential. Twenty-first century problems do not come pre-packaged as a complete system that you plug your breakthrough into. You need to help create that new package. What other elements are central to your part’s functioning, how will your breakthrough interact with them to generate value, what might be the consequences, and how will you work with others to figure out these interdependencies? Inventors and scientists need not figure out the entire solution. But they can figure out some essential connections that would enable others to weave in their set of connections. Don’t push fragments, push workable sets. Public agencies, regional associations, and industry groups can enable the interweaving of various subsets.

Second, build on abductive reasoning. Nineteenth century deductive reasoning to confirm ideas presumes that theory is already fully developed, which is not the case for complex problems. Abductive reasoning formulates novel hypotheses about a complex problem, evaluates them, and reframes them in ongoing cycles of scientific discovery. People working on breakthroughs leverage the collective wisdom in their field by jointly hypothesizing configurations of interdependencies among elements of their problem that they think would lead to a resolution, empirically evaluating the hypothesized configurations to see what works and not, explore how and why, and reframing hypotheses through deliberation and reflection to accumulate learning.

Third, look more deeply and richly into the future. Imagine a variety of value creating opportunities that build on your breakthrough and others like it, and project the emergence of these various possibilities out a decade or more. Use this imagined portfolio as a guide to action (i.e., a strategy) as you cycle through the abductive learning routines for formulating, evaluating, and reframing configurations of interdependencies that would bring your breakthroughs into productive use. Mapping the future of, for example, curing cancer or building renewable energy systems requires that many agents and agencies participate. Together they generate a portfolio of value creating opportunities that provide stepping stones into the future. Intermediary results cycle back into abductive reasoning which helps to define core interdependencies for new breakthroughs.

Headline image credit: Open ideas by opensourceway. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. David Blumenkrantz

    The notion of “emergent design,” which embraces process and adaptation is the next challenge in a world where “evidence-based practice” is the present paradigm that promotes replication and fidelity to technique. This looks like a wonderful companion to another new book from Oxford: Coming of Age the RITE Way: Youth & Community Development through Rites of Passage. Thank you Dr. Dougherty for this timely contribution.

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