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.

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:

An organized group of people, that interact to solve activities with interdependencies, with a particular 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**. 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 Jidoka 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. And in our definition of an organisation, we have “with a particular purpose”, where purpose is a big constraint (in a positive sense) for what our way of working is meant for, i.e., manufacturing, service, software product development, hardware product development, etc. She also mentions some other context-free constraints, “preloaded in our mindset”, also called negative context-free constraints, like assumptions, bounding statements and cultural biases. Since they all belong to individuals, they are therefore on a too fine-grained granularity level, since we are heading for making a good system that is respecting our people, not gunning for changing them individually (to fit a bad system).
It is these former context independent constraints of shared understanding, purposes and goals, that gives us a way of working, which in turn makes our organisation a somewhat more ordered complex adaptive system.

Alicia also mentions context-sensitive (enabling) constraints that are key to innovation. 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) 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.

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. This non-rigid delivery or virtual structure, works cross-functional in any direction, with resources from anywhere in the line hierarchy (structure). People working in the virtual structure, therefore achieve new T-shape in any direction necessary for solving all activities, so the 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 product or 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 innovations. If we look into our organizational principles, we can see that a hampered connectivity between our people will become a severe root cause, that will give many unintended consequences/symptoms all over the organisation. When having a context with higher complexity like product development, it means that we first of all need to focus on making the right product for the customer.
Note! Do not forget that the reason for having a virtual structure as a delivery structure is an abolute 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 arhitecture 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, 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 design for resilience, adaptability and evolvability. But, since the future is unknown in any complex system, it means that there is no foresight, not even for nature. 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 a root cause analysis, 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, made resilient especially for current environment and maybe for some turbulence, but not for all new unpredictable conditions. Though, the billions of branches in the continuously growing tree is 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 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.

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? For product development we can make new innovations 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 [5] if we are lucky. But, 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 organisation. And due to our organisation’s complexity, experimenting or trying to optimise parts, no matter what direction the part is sliced, have an extreme high risk of sub-optimisation on the whole. 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 to fulfil these constraints. This means that if we have organisational problems (caused problems) with our way of working, we can in hindsight also do a root cause analysis, find the root cause(s), and make a solution so that our system gets better. 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 solve the root causes to our organisational problems, or dissolve our problems by changing our system, “Dissolution of Problems”, as Dr. Russell Ackoff would have put it.

This means that an organisation, after solving the root causes to its organisational problems, may get a new endoskeleton for the line hierarchy introducing new constraints, i.e., and become a “new” organisation, but it depends of course on the root causes. Often though, common root causes as mentioned above, is that the interactions and interdependencies are hampered which is causing sub-optimisation. This sub-optimisation is normally due to two different things: 1) there is not virtual structure at all or 2) specialisation in product development gives too many persons to solve a task, which indirectly means that the interactions and interdependencies suffer twofold, due to their plentiness and the lack of time, both occurring due to enhanced Project Administration.

The phenomena The Cobra Effect [6] [7], also clearly shows that we always in hindsight can back-track to find the cobra farms, i.e., simply do a root cause 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).

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 solve 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 caused problems (by ourselves). That symptoms are unsolvable, 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 unsolvable. This means unintended consequences (new unsolvable 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 caused by something deeper rooted.

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.


*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 [4]
– 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)

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

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

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

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

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