A Human ‘Internet of Things’

“He commanded that his chair should be set on the shore, when the tide began to rise. And then he spoke to the rising sea saying “You are part of my dominion, and the ground that I am seated upon is mine, nor has anyone disobeyed my orders with impunity. Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord”. But the sea carried on rising as usual without any reverence for his person, and soaked his feet and legs” — The Tale of King Canute and the Waves

Executives try — King Canute-like — to push back the forces making the modern world unpredictable: exponential increases in the number of nodes of the global network, interacting dynamically with one another, free from reliance on central authority — like a trusted brand or elected representative.

Executives also — Canute-like — try to ‘cut through’, ‘simplify’ or somehow overcome the complexity that emerges⁠ [1] from the waves of interactions — seeking ways to command and control the sea of activity.

But Executives can also — like the wise Danish king actually did — accept there are things one can’t change so, rather than trying to control the uncontrollable, learn instead how to succeed because of complexity and uncertainty (rather than merely in spite of it).

In an unpredictable, volatile world failure is inevitabile — how you embrace failure shapes how successful you are in the long-run

Robust strategies — building high walls for protection — provide comfort but no room for manoeuvre if the environment suddenly shifts. The dominance of Blackberry for business communications saw the parent company RIM populate their board with lawyers and accountants to protect this position — leaving them too far removed from the ground level to sense or respond to the launch of the iPhone, which rapidly decimated their business.

Resilient strategies — tend to focus on ‘hardware solutions’: rethinking strategies gone awry; improving exposed processes; unclogging overloaded communication lines, or putting lipstick on a problem pig by PR-ing it. Resilient strategies provide more options than robust ones, but they’re usually reactive and incredibly expensive to develop, often requiring teams of consultants to show them how to ‘become Agile’ or ‘digitally transform’.

There is a third way — described by the creator of the OODA Loop of Colonel Boyd [⁠2] — “a way that emphasises the implicit nature of human beings.” It rejects (futile) attempts to predict what will happen and instead designs for ‘rapid observation and action’. For this, we utilise people as sensors and responders — a ‘software solution’.

Anticipatory Awareness⁠ — future focus and bias for action*

When the promises of predictive analysis (esp. of low-probability/high-impact events) fails to deliver [3] the wise Executive will turn to horizon scanning. Becoming attuned to weak signals of emerging opportunities and threats they will make the multiple, safe-to-fail bets⁠ [4] needed to rapidly discover where the boundaries of possibilities are.

They will be the ones who reject the mania for building the big ticket items (Big Data analytics, digital transformation, AI etc.) Consultancies and management theory pushes (in a self-serving way) — that, like the Death Star of the Empire in Star Wars, always gets blown up before it becomes operational⁠ [5]. They will be the ones who seek rapid quick wins that shape the environment while everyone else is feeding at the ‘next big thing’ trough.

Drones not Death Stars!

A heightened sensitivity to weak signals of what’s coming — similar to how experienced drivers anticipate potential hazards before they happen and therefore avoid them — is a developable skill. Organisations can accelerate this key component of anticipatory awareness by activating a human equivalent of the ‘Internet of Things’ — a Human Sensor Network — capable of sensing and responding to early signals across an entire network.

Privileging action over idealism, control and expert opinion

Harnessing human capabilities to sense and respond (rather than predict and plan) privileges what can be done — with the resources you have — over what you’d like to do in an idealised world (‘if only you had more of X, or less of Y’). Such Anticipatory Awareness is activated by bringing three core forms of human cognition (a sunk resource) online:

  1. Pattern-matching — experience is the development of large repertoires of similar patterns in human long-term memory. Multiplied by a network’s size unlocks a context-rich set of sensors — early warning system based on intuition and evidence (and if interspersed with naive sensors — experts from other domains or inexperienced people from the same domain — it’s more likely the emperor will be told when he isn’t wearing any clothes)⁠[6]

Yet significant barriers exist in most organisations to developing this form of intelligent agility: Pattern entrainment based on past success means many people prefer to merely hope tomorrow will be an extension of today; cognitive biases prevent decision-makers from seeing variations from the norm; and organisational inertia — in the form of policies that filter out variations, divides ’strategists’ from ‘operationalists’ and offer perverse incentives that reward people for meeting targets set in the past with little awareness of the future — hold organisations back from evolving.

For those Executives who recognise the need to face the future the way it is — not King Canute-like, egged on by advisors vaunting his power over natural forces — activating Anticipatory Awareness is a strategic necessity. It starts with accepting the way the world is: messy, complex and unpredictable, and:

  1. Rejecting idealist visions of the future and binning expensive — forlorn — efforts to reverse-engineer the gap from there to your current position. Adopt a naturalistic approach instead. Seek to understand a ‘sufficiency of the present’ — enough to act — and start nudging the evolution of your organisation towards a future that may be currently unknowable, but is known in parts across your networks and, if activated, is a more contextually appropriate journey for you (i.e. your natural, future journey, not someone else’s past journey)

This is how you use a human internet of things to uncover and exploit the evolutionary potential of the present.⁠

*Anticipatory Thinking. Klein, Snowden, Pin (2014)

Govern the state by being straight-forward; wage war by being crafty. — Laozi