Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Improv, Business, and Emergent Behavior

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One of the joys of improv is not knowing exactly what will happen, but improv isn’t unique in that respect. I didn’t get a script when I woke up this morning and I’m guessing you didn’t, either.

What I did have in place when I woke up was a context. I’m in a society with rules, both internally and externally imposed, that guide my behavior. I also interact with other individuals. Mathematicians and computer scientists study simple versions of these interactions using models such as John Conway’s Game of Life. The Game of Life is a model based on a grid of cells. Some of the cells are turned on and others are turned off. At the beginning of a turn, each cell compares its state to its neighbors’ states and turns on, turns off, or remains the same based on a set of rules all cells have in common.

If you follow the earlier link to the Game of Life Wikipedia page, you’ll see that interesting behaviors emerge from various Game of Life starting configurations. The phenomena are interesting enough for researchers to create a new field of inquiry, complex systems science. According to Dr. Melanie Mitchell of Portland State University and the Santa Fe Institute, complex systems is:

…an interdisciplinary field of research that seeks to explain how large numbers of relatively simple entities organize themselves, without the benefit of any central controller, into a collective whole that creates patterns, uses information, and, in some cases, evolves and learns.

— Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour

Complex systems is new and, while it’s provided some interesting insights into some systemic behaviors, it hasn’t resulted in models that predict how consumers or businesses will interact in an environment (e.g., the internet) or with a product. The good news is that you can do field experiments and see what behaviors emerge. Some marketers use the “cool kids” strategy, where they make a few dozen units of a new product and give it to the cool kids in a high school to see what they do with it. As William Gibson noted in “Burning Chrome”, a short story first published in the 1982 collection Hackers, “the street finds its own uses for things”.

A similar rule applies to existing products. If your bosses panic when customers use a product in unintended ways, call a meeting, brew some herbal tea, and figure out how to take advantage of the gift you’ve received. You’re not wrong or stupid for not having foreseen every possible way your products could be used, but you are both of those things if you let your ego get in the way of capitalizing on what your customers tell you they want.

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