Learn Strategy from Robots

8 11 2010

Re-reading one of my favourite books, Kevin Kelly’s 1994 “Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines”. One of the early chapters deals with the paradox of producing intelligence in machines, namely that the ‘obvious’ solution – giving the machine a really clever, highly developed brain – is actually the wrong one. In fact, a big, all-controlling, all-knowing brain pretty much condemns a machine to clunky failure. The reason we all start with this assumption is, of course, that we assume a big, centralised brain is what we as humans have. Turns out we are wrong about that as well.

The alternative – an alternative that produces machines that can actually get things done – is something Kelly refers to as “emergent intelligence” – swarms of “dumb” functions that in aggregate produce smart results. This is the same approach that makes a beehive or an ants’ nest such a successful “super-organism”. 16 years after it was published (an eternity in web-time), “Out of Control” is still worth a read.

Kelly refers in passing to both political economy and organisational structure in this context, but doesn’t really take it anywhere. There is a lot of food for thought here though. We all tend to work with the illusion of strategy being a top-down, CEO-led activity; but it is amazing how many apparently well-thought-out strategies take the business down. Could it be that top-down strategy is like the cumbersome robot with a big brain (usually kept in an unwieldy box connected to the robot by cables because of its disproportionate weight; one more reason the robot never functions properly)? Could it be that emergent strategy – strategy that bubbles up from interactive but comparatively dumb functions at the lowest level of the organisation – is actually smarter than the C-suite approach to strategy? (And is the C-suite too often like that brain in a box connected by a remote cable?)

Here are Kelly’s 6 rules for building intelligence from the bottom up:

  1. Do simple things first;
  2. Learn to do them flawlessly;
  3. Add new layers of activity over the results of the simple tasks;
  4. DON’T CHANGE THE SIMPLE THINGS (my emphasis);
  5. Make the new layer work as flawlessly as the simple;
  6. Repeat ad infinitum

What might this mean? Do the thought experiment for yourself. I find myself thinking about customer service: what if you were to start with simply working out what kind of person could meet your customer’s real needs, and get that layer of the organisation working flawlessly? Then ask: “so what needs to happen in the layer above customer service to ensure they stay effective and the organisation stays viable?”, and so on upwards. Make sure communication from each level can make it upwards without distortion; that means we will always know what is happening in the way of change amongst our customers; and so on.

Tell me what you think this might look like in your business or organisation.

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