The Fog of Innovation

The Fog of War is invoked to describe the uncertainty that permeates combat operations. This term is generally attributed to a quote by Clausewitz: “The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently — like the effect of a fog or moonshine — gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.” (via wikipedia).  

The evolution of an innovation or innovative company faces a similar fog.  At any point in time, we extrapolate from current conditions a set of possible future outcomes and take action to try to bring the best outcome into being.  In one view, we should make economically rational decisions, those that maximize our expected return over the outcomes weighted by their likelihood.  

However, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan” argues convincingly us that the seeds of disruption and destruction lie in events that exist outside all reasonable extrapolations of a current state of affairs.  The occurrence of a highly improbable event is, in fact, inevitable.

Since we can’t know anything for sure, innovators have to operate at a completely different level than analysts.  It’s a chess game where the rules can change mid-play forcing a complete re-evaluation of strategy.  For example, the iPhone was a Black Swan to the cellular industry, as this analyst’s perspective shows. This dynamnic is why you should ignore Forrester and other analysts – they tell you what the world will be like if nothing surprising happens, but surprising things always happen.

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Physician Replacement Therapy

The family doctor or nurse’s job is an impossible one.  Given our imperfect description of symptoms, and possibly a blood test, they have to figure out what intervention will help us return to a stable, healthy life.  The problem is that human beings are probably the most complicated system that we can imagine to try to regulate.  Our environment, psychology, and life habits interact deeply with dozens of major internal organs and body systems which manifest tens of thousands of possible known problems. We know a great deal about the components of our body, but what we do know is dwarfed by what we don’t know about how these components interact with one another.  After a brief digression into what makes medicine a hard problem, I’ll introduce some ideas for what we, as patient participants, can do to improve the problem solving process, our own care, and healthcare at large.

Network Medicine

A recent TEDMED talk by Albert-László Barabási highlights the rich system of interconnected networks the exist both within and outside our body; networks are a way of viewing the world that we are only beginning to understand.  The functioning of our body is not independent from our mind and environment.  The bugs in the soil communicate with the symbiotic bacteria that enable us to digest food, the micro-RNA of the plants we eat may directly change our gene expression, the inactive ingredients in breast milk line a baby’s intestines and protect it from external pathogens until the immune system has matured, and our expectation of a treatment’s effect can physically transform how our bodies function (the so-called placebo effect).  

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