Imperfect works

Notes on the practice of innovation and technology commercialization.

It’s natural for us to seek, if not perfection, at least to try and optimize impacts.  This applies to the collection of components which support effective development ecosystems. For example during the 1990s when countries in Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia were transitioning to independent nations, many were eager to learn how they could capitalize on what in some cases was their impressive science base. However, the view was frequently expressed that “we cannot make progress on commercializing science and technology until we have clear laws on intellectual property ownership and protection” or “we must wait until we have sufficient investment capital resources.” Fortunately, in Russia for example, many individual scientists and research institutions began to develop procedures and support systems for technology commercialization – even though most of the needed mechanisms were not yet in place, or potentially dangerously unclear; might the government, sometime in the future, claim all rights and revenues from new products or new businesses created from government funded research?

In 2008 Neil F. Johnson, author of the book Simple Complexity wrote a mathematical paper together with Damien Challet with the intriguing title (well, maybe not so for everyone) of Optimal Combinations of Imperfect Objects. Their research shows how to make best use of imperfect objects, such as defective analog and digital components, and how perfect, or near-perfect, devices can be constructed by taking combinations of such defects.

What, one might ask, has this to do with trying to commercialize technology in a developing country or one undergoing a transition from one governmental system to another? Actually, quite a lot. In his book Prof. Johnson tells the story of how sailors used to deduce the correct time at sea, before accurate clocks were invented, by taking a collection of (imperfect timekeeping) clocks on board and averaging their displayed times.

Intellectual property regulations, intelligence about markets and their access, research and development, early-stage funding, new product development experience, transaction costs, culture, trust, incubators, science parks, competence in English language,… are all, like the sailor’s clocks or the defective analog and digital components, imperfect objects. If the cost of perfecting each component, including transaction costs, becomes not worth the effort then stop, use for now, improve later. If no advance towards improving an ecosystem component can be made at the present time, consider making the best of what you have, use for now, improve later. Furthermore, optimized systems also have the disadvantage of tending to be fragile and unstable – but this is a discussion for a future blog

Dave Snowden in his work on complexity believes we are all engaged in a constant process of sense-making; trying to find the best available explanation for something based on previous experience rather than the perfect logical solution.  Snowden contrasts classic efficiency seeking organizational management with organic approaches that can maximize the effectiveness of a system even though its individual component agents may be operating sub-optimally.

Practice continues to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach. This is one reason why we have ceased using the term ‘best practices’ in favor of ‘good practices.’ So let’s not strive for perfection but be happy with fit-for-purpose – although Miss Dale my kindergarten teacher who always wrote ‘must do better’ on my report card might have frowned.

Next time: Poverty traps and prototypes.

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  4. […] and so forth – more about this later. You may remember that in the February 2013 Imperfect Works blog in this series we talked about optimizing which means “make something as good as possible […]

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  15. […] of this series the advantages of sub-optimum solutions will sound familiar (e.g. Imperfect Works Feb 2013 blog in this series.  More about satisficers and maximizers in future […]

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