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Think bigger, plan smaller


If you’re like me you’ve probably got a sneaking suspicion that you don’t really understand the world. You probably feel like big events seem to happen almost without reason and that people who claim to have a good handle on things are just faking it. You probably also find this feeling keeps you awake at night.

And here’s the thing: you’re right!

Life, it seems, is essentially unpredictable. Even experts are pretty rubbish at predicting things. Consider research conducted by Philip Tetlock who undertook a two decade study into experts and what they knew or, indeed, didn’t. He rounded up nearly 300 experts (seriously clever people in a range of fields) and got them to answer over 27,000 questions between them about how various things would pan out (proper, measurable things) and waited to see how many of them were right. What he found was that experts were right more often than non-experts but they were still wrong the majority of the time. The smartest people in the world couldn’t be relied upon to know how things would go down even in fields in which they were pre-eminent.


Nassim Taleb has written on this topic extensively. In The Black Swan he recounts numerous examples of our failure to predict massive, world changing events. We failed to predict the Wall Street Crash. We didn’t foresee the rise of the Soviet Union, or its fall! We didn’t even see Harry Potter coming. Taleb points out that the networked nature of the modern world ensures that these wide-reaching events will be more common in the future and that the fundamental interconnectedness of all things makes their impacts even harder to predict. It appears we have started out with a complex and hard to predict world and systematically made it more so!

Coming back to the world of business and innovation, we need only look at Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma for striking examples of how strong, well oiled companies, titans of their industries, failed to see the coming of some new technology or other changes which ended up destroying their core businesses. Not only that but they frequently failed to see those same disruptive opportunities when they came from within. Remember how Xerox didn’t see the potential in the computer mouse or GUI? How different the world of technology might be today if they had.

All of this leaves us with a major headache – if we intend to be creative that means doing something now which will bring benefits in the future. But if we can’t predict the future, how can we possibly know what we should create? How can we plan and build for a future that will probably not exist?

The answer, it seems, is to tinker.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb outlines how to deal with the dangers of an unpredictable future. He specifically cites “convex tinkering” as a way to build something which stands up to the unpredictable nature of the world. Essentially, don’t worry about understanding the big picture or predicting the future, instead build small, self contained things and grow them organically, adapting as you go. The point being that success in an unpredictable world is dependent on making mistakes that you can survive! In Adapt, Tim Harford points to systems such as evolution which have proved highly successful without the need (or indeed the ability) to predict anything at all. And in The Lean Startup Eric Ries points out that rapid iteration is the key to successful innovation.

Creativity depends on big ideas and ambitious dreams. Nobody can be creative unless they let themselves think in ways which are free from the normal and safe. But what we sometimes fail to focus on is that for big dreams to become big realities they must stand up to a harsh and unforgiving world. They must not only stand up to the unexpected but be built in such a way as to take advantage of it. They must be flexible and built to benefit from constant change. This means tinkering and iterating.

Innovation requires two clear and distinct mindsets, those of both a revolutionary thinker and a garden-shed tinkerer. These mindsets seem diametrically opposed and they’re not frequently found in the same head (this is why successful innovation is almost always a team sport) but you have to hold them both up as equally vital.

A few weeks ago, in these electronic pages, I reeled off a list of apparently contradictory items of wisdom. I find myself now thinking of two more which, together, sort of sum up what I’m saying here: “shoot for the moon and and you might hit the stars” and “remember, great oaks from small acorns grow”.

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