Are you stuck in a rabbit hole devoid of innovations?

Innovations are important for any organisation. But how can we achieve innovations in our organisations? How can we achieve them continuously? To answer these questions, it is important to understand different constraints that always are present, even if we often are unaware of them.

The constraints can be divided into context independent (context-free) and context-sensitive, as Alicia Juarrero talked about at Lean WX in April 2015 [1]. These different constraints are important in order to understand that innovations are new cohesiveness (cohesion), new integrations of parts, where constraints will affect the ability to make innovations, Alicia further states. This cohesiveness is something she brings up as difficult to understand, since we have much easier to understand clumping, aggregation, collections and lump on top of another. The organisational principles are constraints for any organisation’s way of working, where some of them are context-free and valid for all contexts. The activation of more and more of the remaining principles as the contextual complexity increases, can be seen as these context-sensitive constraints that are enabling innovation.

Since we are focusing on organisations and their output (products, services, etc.), we start with some short introduction about how we can define an organisation, before we go deeper into the different constraints. When we look at an organisation, we need to keep the definition context independent, in order to have validity for any organisation. A context-independent definition for an organisation is:

People that interact to solve activities with interdependencies for a common purpose*.

Our people and the activities are the only components within our organisation (our complex adaptive system) and is the right granularity level (key in a complex system) for our organisation to be able to have a context independent definition. Through this we are therefore able to build our way of working, where we of course always need to fulfil the context independent  organizational principles** for people and activities***, for the context we are operating in. As you can see, people and activities are of the right granularity level for our organisation, not only for having context independence, but also because we need to focus on improving the way of working in our organisation, never ever the people within it. This is also in line with Dave Snowden that is stating; “You can’t change a system one person at a time.” [2]. When we have problems in our way of working in the organisation, it is always the system to blame, not the people. To always blame the system, and fixing all the found faults as well, is in the Jidoka thinking for Toyota, a very important ingredient to fully respect their people. A famous quote by the quality guru W. Edwards Deming is “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” [3] and shows similar thoughts as Toyota’s. So, in order to be innovative, we need to have a good system, where our people can thrive.

In our organisations we have context independent (context-free) constraints, some kind of background constraints that always are present, like shared understanding, purpose and goals for the organisation, which Alicia states, which are valid before we chosen the context that the organisation is operating in. In our definition of an organisation, we have “with a common purpose”, where an organisation’s chosen purpose is a big constraint (in a positive sense) for what our way of working is meant for. The purpose gives the context we will operate in, i.e., the context of manufacturing, service, software product development, hardware product development, etc., which in turn means that we then have all the activated organizational principles we need to fulfil. The purpose will therefore indirectly give us a flourishing way of working for our organization if we follow the organizational principles, even though some iterations, with less and less changes are needed. This also means that we get a more and more structured way of working, which means that it is complicated and not complex to understand, i.e., if we have problems with our way of working, we can for sure find the root causes, the non-fulfilled organizational principles.

Alicia also mentions some other context-free constraints, “preloaded in our mindset”, also called negative context-free constraints, like assumptions, bounding statements and cultural biases. But these really are emergent properties and emergent behaviour from our system (way of working). Since they all are emergent from interactions between our people, interactions that in turn depends on the way of working we have created, this means that they cannot be preloaded in our mindset, more than from an old system. Since we humans can have different roles in different “communities”, this means that we can have different “mindsets” due to the way of working in a community as well. This also shows that people and activities, once again, are on the right granularity level. And remember that we are heading for making a good system that is respecting our people, not gunning for changing them individually (to fit a bad system). Respect for people is the top principle that we need to follow, to generate new innovations, no matter if we are an organization, community, country etc. But, as soon as the top management in the hierarchy starts to over-control the people, for example due to need of continued power, career and money, the innovations will soon fade away since no one dare to make mistakes anymore.

Science is always the enabler for any organizational way of working, for any context, Clear, Complicated for Complex, even though more and more organizational principles will be activated, the more complex the context is. The activated science always needs to be fulfilled, no matter if we need to go to the moon, or we need to have a flourishing and innovative organization, where the latter of course is necessary for the former. It always means to make a proper systems design för the product or the organization, which will give us the needed cohesiveness, which actually is a new innovation. Alicia puts it a little different and mentions context-sensitive (enabling) constraints that are key to innovation.  She continues with that all innovation constitutes a new form of cohesiveness (for example an integration of parts to a product at an Integration Event; a temporal context-sensitive constraint, according to Juarrero) after closure of the loop of context-sensitive (enabling) constraints. She states that closed loops create new endoskeleton for systems, organisations, enterprises, etc., and this new emergent in turn becomes the context-free constraints for any new component of the system. This means that the new endoskeleton, is our new systems design, for a product or an organization.

One way to view endoskeleton, is to refer to it as the rigid line hierarchy, that is by coherence, stabilising the organisation. The line hierarchy is not responsible for deliveries, but responsible for; administration, economy, a pool of the necessary resources, new technology focus, the competence, the career, the salaries, the education, the guilds, etc. This responsibility has feedback loops that can be slow, which means that decisions do not need to be fast, so a top-down control and command hierarchy is common and possible.  If the context is a simple context, we are in the Obvious/Clear domain according to the Cynefin™ Framework, like manufacturing. In a simple context we already know what product to deliver to the customer as well as how we can manufacture the product if we are a manufacturing unit, so we focus on efficiency.

But, in contexts with higher complexity, for example product development, we need a flexible structure that can deliver cross-functional solutions fast, which means that we cannot make the processes too detailed, in order to achieve the needed cohesiveness of our system product. This non-rigid delivery (virtual) structure, works cross-functional in any direction over the line hierarchy (organisational structure), with resources from anywhere in the line hierarchy. People working in the virtual structure, therefore achieve new T-shape in any direction necessary for solving all activities, so the system product can be developed right. The virtual structure will take care of all necessary interactions and interdependencies between its parts to secure the closure of the loop of the context-sensitive (enabling) constraints, i.e., make the new cohesiveness for the new system product (innovation). This means that the line hierarchy, the organisation’s endoskeleton, does not need to change frequently, as long as the virtual structure is not hampered to achieve new system products. The virtual structure will secure a tremendous increase of interactions, interactions that are vital to nurture in any organisation, as Dr. Russell Ackoff often emphasized [4].  If we look into our organizational principles, we can see that a hampered connectivity between our people will always become a severe root cause, that will give many symptoms/unintended consequences all over the organisation. Note! Do not forget that the reason for having a virtual structure as a delivery structure is an absolute necessity. The virtual structure together with projects for product development required by the US military in the 1950s was introduced because of the sub-optimisation caused by the line hierarchy structure (siloed organisation). Other important structures that we humans use are also architecture and planning structure of all activities to do, and we make all these structures in order to reduce complexity.

Let us think about the evolution of earth’s eco system, “innovations” in nature, for a moment. Nature is a complex and distributed system (no manager), making experiments in parallel continuously in a safe-to-fail manner, by making multiple evolutionary branches, deeper and deeper in nature’s evolutionary tree. All in order to continuously, but indirectly, design for resilience, adaptability and evolvability. Since the future is unknown in any complex system, it means that there can be no foresight, not even for nature, which in turn means no plan or intention. It also means that nature is not filling any gap, which indirectly means that nature is not striving for higher efficiency, higher quality, lower cost, etc., like an organisation. This is also stated by Dave Snowden [2]; “The reality in a complex system is that we can know what we don’t want to be the case, but knowing what future emergent solution is resilient is simply not possible until (sic) it emerges.“.
So, even if archaeologists in hindsight can understand an extinction of a specie (an end of a branch) by doing an analysis to find the root cause(s), nature from beginning did not have any foresight. Every branch of nature’s tree, will sooner or later be a dead end, since the design will eventually fail due to environmental or eco system changes, it will inevitably occur. Which also indirectly means that every branch is a fail-safe**** branch, that was resilient for current environment, but not for all new unpredictable conditions. Though, the billions and billions of branches in the continuously growing tree are nature’s safe-to-fail strategy, this everlasting experimentation in parallel, is nature’s only way to survive. To fix the symptom, the dead end in hindsight when the specie already is extinct, is too late. There is really no way of solving non-resilience or non-adaptability within an existing specie, when the environment changes too fast.
Indirectly it means that nature has already solved (and not dissolved) all possible root causes in advance, by using parallel paths for the evolution of every specie and its co-evolution with all other species in the eco system and in combination with the environmental changes on earth. There is also the reason for higher risk of bigger living creatures to extinct; the number of them are fewer, the number of parallel paths is not only too few, the feed-back loop is simply also too long for new paths of the specie to evolve. The extinction of the dinosaurs is one example, when the environmental changes are dramatic and fast.

Going back to our organisations and their evolution of products we can understand that the evolution of species in nature is closer to the evolution of our software and hardware products, compared to the evolution of our organisations. Why? In product development we can make new innovations (and it is often necessary) by parallel experiments and find new ways to achieve awesome cohesiveness (integrations, cohesion) both on the parts and wholes, to evolve our products, or an exaptation***** [6] if we are lucky. For an organisation we do not have the possibility for parallel organisations on the whole to experiment with, to see which whole is the most favourable. We have only our one and only organisation. But we need to remember that organisations have purpose (intention), which evolution does not have, and that is the biggest difference between them as the complex systems they are. The purpose means that we can ask why and go backwards, when our organisational purposes are not fulfilled or when we have other organisational problems. That is impossible in nature’s tree, since there is no purpose, meaning there will be no problems, no symptoms to correct, like it most probably will be in an organisation. In nature there is no why to ask, when something has evolved.

Due to our organisation’s complexity, experimenting or trying to optimise parts afterwards, no matter what direction the parts are sliced, have an extreme high risk of sub-optimisation on the whole. This also goes with bottom-up transformations to a new way of working (popular today with agile signs), if we do not have considered anything about the whole organisation from start, i.e., no systems design of the organisation. Then no PDCA cycles in the world can save us, trying to repair what is missing, it will only be a very painful sub-optimisation, not leading anywhere.

So, what can we do then, in order to make our organisations evolve, to achieve resilience and adaptability when we are lacking that, and sustain when we already have it?
Thanks to these context-free constraints of shared understanding, purpose and goal, we have a way of working in our organisation trying to fulfil these constraints, like higher efficiency, lower cost etc., which clearly differ from nature, as discussed above. This means that if we have organisational problems (built-in problems) with our way of working, we cannot judge everything as “something just happens”, as in nature, since we in our organisation have purpose (intentionality). We can in hindsight always do a problem picture analysis (SPPA), find the root cause(s), and make a solution so that our system (our organisation) gets better. Here the Cobra Effect is a good example, showing that the effect and cause backtracking is possible, i.e., find the cause that already have happened. This means that we do not need to wait for possible emergence or disruption to happen in our organisation, or make a transformation, to make our organisation better. This also means that we are in full control and can plan when and how to dissolve the root causes to our organisational problems, by dissolving our problems by changing our system, or dissolve a problem, as Dr. Russell Ackoff would have put it.

Often common root causes as mentioned above, are that the interactions are hampered, that lead to ineffectiveness and lack of innovations (both leads to wrong product) and inefficiency (product wrongly built). Hampering of interactions can be of five different types for product development, where we; 1) neglect the organizational principles for people, 2) hamper the interactions for our people to only follow the line hierarchy (no virtual delivery structure), which means a classic sub-optimization (where adding a virtual delivery structure is the solution), 3) specialisation in product development, that despite having a virtual delivery structure already, gives too many persons to solve a task for small initiatives/projects (extremely resource inefficient, due to the enhanced Project Administration), 4) neglecting principles for the activities, which means that the first interactions are hampered if we start to a) divide the functionality into sub-functionality (like value streams), or b) without consideration divide the architecture into components, where we in both cases are neglecting the presence of non-functional requirements, or 5) hampering the (right) interactions, by having different purposes (or goal for an activity).

The phenomena The Cobra Effect [7] [8], also clearly shows that we always in hindsight can back-track to find the cobra farms, i.e., simply do a problem picture analysis by brainstorming all recognized problems (symptoms) in the organisation and then asking multiple why to connect the symptoms all the way down to the root cause(s), to be able to do a new solution of the way of working.

So, as Deming indirectly stated; in order to enable innovation by our good people, we need to have a good system. A good system is really an enabler for innovations, most probably one of the best, since then people can thrive without risk for any retaliation. This tells us that we really need to dissolve the root causes to our organisational problems to increase the odds for innovations, even though product innovations of course never can be guaranteed. But, if our organisational problems mean hampering the interactions and interdependencies within our organisation, we are in great danger of building an environment fully devoid of innovations or even necessary integrations. When interactions and interdependencies are blocked, we are simply not flexible enough to make new products, the new cohesiveness will fail to arrive.

So how can we know what is causing an unhealthy low score on innovations, without finding the root causes to our inherent problems first? We cannot. It will then simply be a walk in the dark, where neither a closure of the loop of context-sensitive (enabling) constraints, nor hypothesis-driven problem-solving, nor situational assessment or fitness landscape thinking, can ever help us without enormous risk for sub-optimisation, since our organisational problems (symptoms) are built-in problems (by ourselves). That symptoms are insolvable also goes together with complexity theory, as stated by Snowden about a complex system; “Any intervention will produce unintended consequences, and early detection of those is key, some may also be beneficial.” [2].  The reason for the unintended consequences is due to that any intervention done, will be done on the symptoms (the visible organisational problems), which always are insolvable. This means unintended consequences (new insolvable symptoms) if we try. This is also the same reason to why we cannot copy another organisation’s or framework’s way of working; we always first need to find the root causes to the organisational problems, since only getting rid of the root causes can make our system better. Otherwise, we are only trying to do the impossible; solve symptoms, that are built-in in our way of working from start.

So, the remaining way forward to completely avoid unintended consequences, when having organisational problems, is therefore to find and make a new system solution so we once for all get rid of its root causes, and achieve a good system. Hard? No! Root causes are context independent****** and not too many, so finding root causes is straightforward and easy. How to get rid of the root causes? The new solution of our system is context dependent, but is normally straightforward too. This is actually very good news, because that means that we have also the solution in our own hands, and not in the hands of some external forces, that need to sell us a new method or framework, that can never work as stated above.

So, what are we waiting for? It is time to get out of that rabbit hole one time and for all, now when we have acquired the knowledge on the number one priority; make a good system where our people can thrive, so they can enable more innovations, nurture them, and continuously make even more innovations as well.

C u soon again.


*With organizational purpose means; manufacture a product, service, develop a new product, etc., with a certain price and quality. We are not talking about the nowadays popular Purpose statement, that is only a continuation of the easy-gamed value and mission statements. In this kind of statements, behaviour, properties and core values of our employees are stated, which is more of wishful thinking, since they will only emerge from multiple interactions within the organization. Since the interactions in turn, also emerge from our way of working, one can believe that if the purpose of the organization is not fulfilled, neither will the emergent behaviour and properties of our organization be what one could wish for.

**Principles are always context independent/context-free/universal

***If we add all the organisational principles we need to follow in our organisations, to make them awesome, the total organisational definition would look like this:
Respected people with a common vocabulary, working full-time in a flat hierarchy of teams founded on the numbers 5, 15 and 150, also in the light of Conway’s law, with the right specialist competence, and understanding the Cynefin™ framework and Conway’s law, that iteratively and in parallel if needed, interact freely and end to end over the whole organisation in as short chains of interactions as possible, giving them the necessary broad competence to also directly take care of organisational problems as well as do continual improvements, and therefore be able to efficiently and effectively solve, by also exploring in close collaboration with the customer and end user to gain new knowledge, activities with interdependencies, fully planned and under control, to be able to build the system product or service, incrementally if possible, always with the appropriate architecture under control and responsibility and always with timely Integration Events with verification and validation depending on context, to get just-in-time feedback, where also the long-term critical line, activities, interdependencies and Integration Events are fully under control, and visualised as well, to achieve the purpose.

****Fail-safe mindset as defined by Alicia Juarrero in [5]
– Assumes linear, deterministic universe – which allows for recipes, blueprints, business plans
– One-to-one causal relationships
– No context dependence
– No understanding of part-whole/whole-part relationships
– No nonlinear phase transitions or surprises (or emergence or creativity)

*****the term exaptation was mentioned by Stephen Jay Gould in an article from 1982, as an additional term to adaptivity

******Root causes are simply, and always, non-fulfilled principles. And all principles, like scientific laws, are context independent/context-free/universal.


[1] Juarrero, Alicia. Presentation from the Lean WX conference, April 2015.
Link copied 2020-12-28.
Constraints that Enable Innovation – Alicia Juarrero on Vimeo

[2] Snowden, Dave. Blog post. Link copied 2021-01-01.
Diversity & coherence – Cognitive Edge (

[3] The Deming Institute. Deming quotes. Link copied 2021-01-02.
A bad system will beat a good person every time. – The W. Edwards Deming Institute

[4] Ackoff, Dr. Russell Lincoln. Speech. “Systems-Based Improvement, Pt 2.”, Lecture given at the College of Business Administration at the University of Cincinnati on May 2, 1995.
Link copied 2018-10-27. At 02:35 “The job of a manager is how to manage the interactions of the subordinates that he has, not to manage their actions.”, and forward where he discusses the importance of the interactions all over the organisation.
Russell Ackoff – Systems-Based Improvement, Pt 2 – YouTube

[5] Juarrero, Alicia. Presentation from the Lean UX conference, 2014.
Link copied 2021-01-03.
Safe-Fail, NOT Fail-Safe – YouTube

[6] Snowden, Dave. Blog post. Link copied 2021-01-03.
Spandrels and exaptations – Cognitive Edge (

[7] Snowden, Dave. Blog post. Link copied 2019-06-04.
Of effects & things – Cognitive Edge (

[8] Wikipedia. The Cobra Effect. Link copied 2020-12-30.
Cobra effect – Wikipedia