Change involves risk. When the change is an innovation the quantum of risk increases. And when the change is an invention the quantum of risk is greater still.
All projects involve risk. People respond to risk differently.
Some people belong to the Zaphod Beeblebrox class: their attitude to risk is to don the appropriate technology, which in Zaphod’s case was the Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses. At the first sign of danger they turn completely opaque.
Some people prefer selective Stockholm Syndrome. They empathise so much with the creators of the original risks that they perceive alternatives as riskier.
Yet others feel safer in the Nanny State. They don’t worry about risk. They have no risk to worry about. They aren’t allowed to take any risks.
A sad state of affairs.
Some of this is caused by blame cultures. I was speaking to Kevin Marks earlier this evening about this and related issues, and he referred me to this Etsy post: Blameless PostMortems and a Just Culture.
Sometimes the cause is even more insidious: wilful blindness, again in a Kevin-referred post.
The trigger for our conversation was a recent video doing the rounds, Eben Moglen at F2C, talking about innovation under austerity.
If you haven’t seen the video, please do so. It’s long, but it’s worth it. You may not agree with all of it, but it’s still worth it.
Youth is often the engine of innovation, particularly affordable innovation. Which, as Eben Moglen points out, is what is needed at a time of austerity.
It is possible to innovate in austerity, but only if the barriers to entry are kept down.
Which means allowing people to hack.
Which causes other problems.
If you allow people to hack, people will hack. And you can’t stop people hacking. Some people want hackability to be turned on and off, to be controllable. That’s not always easy. It is part of the reason why institutional buyers shied away from open source a decade ago, and why they find Android a challenge today. Loss of control. [There's a more insidious reason, not having anyone to blame and not willing to carry responsibility].
Sometimes the state decides that hacking is unsafe. That people should not be allowed to get under the hood, they might get hurt. Or something like that. So the nanny state encourages unhackability. Lockdowns. Sealed units. Warning: Contains Nuts.
Yet as Eben says innovation at a time like this is absolutely critical. So what do we do?
We need to make hacking safer. Allow the Maker Generation to make mistakes while keeping the consequences of those mistakes at affordable levels. Like open source communities, where gains are socialised and losses are privatised. Like teaching children about safe hacking.
Clay Shirky once remarked that Wikipedia succeeded because the cost of repair was kept at least as low as the cost of damage: the undo button. When the cost of repair exceeds the cost of damage, the consequences are predictable. Chewing gum on sidewalks. Graffiti on walls.
We need to build “undo” functionality into more and more things, so that people can experiment without worry about blame or consequences. We spend a lot of time teaching our children about consequences. Maybe it’s time we spent some of our energy making sure there are no consequences, or at the very least minimising the consequences.
Innovation is our lifeblood. Particularly during difficult economic times, radical innovation is an imperative. For radical innovation to happen, we have to provide the most likely innovators, our youth, with the ability to innovate, unfettered, blame-free, where failure is seen as learning.
Instead, we pass legislation to tell people that peanut butter contains nuts. And we encourage enterprise buyers to take the safe option: as the saying goes, nobody got fired for buying IBM. The names have changed. Microsoft. SAP. Oracle. But the principle’s the same. Take no risks. Avoid change. You will live longer. Even if your company dies as a result.
Addendum: Kevin was writing something in parallel about the “undo” culture, a must-read post: Keep ALL the versions.