Decoherence Innovation – A Framework
By Philippe Cartau, with the unparalleled insight and support from Fernanda Arreola, Professor of Entrepreneurship at EMLV.
Decoherence Innovation is a framework that strives to optimise the art of transforming multiple “possibilities” into one reality.
The journey of innovation resembles in many ways the transition from the uncertainty of particle physics to the realm of mechanical physics. Understanding both the principles of quantum physics and the transformational process can give insight into ways to better understand and manage innovation. Beyond the obvious comparison of size or « particle count » between a small startup and a major corporation, there are many other parallels.
The quantum world is full of probability, as is the world of startups. Accepting probability and using it may yet be one of the better strategies to optimise success within a startup, understanding that mechanical precision is impossible at this level. Investors already deal with this uncertainty by executing relevant and consistent strategies applied to large amounts of deals. As for the entrepreneur, the key challenge is reducing probability at a pace coherent with progressive financing and validation of direction.
Precision bears its toll on startups with an impact that is almost proportional to the accumulation and depth of knowledge. As with the quantum world, achieving greater precision in one area will come at the expense of another. Heeding the lessons from this smaller world can push us to adopt the proper mindset when managing resources and time. This implies being able to stop work in progress, even if we know we can delve deeper or improve further; this means focusing on value, not on ability.
At the quantum level, the observer ceases to be a bystander and actually becomes an actor, changing the course of the startup if something so acutely human such as vision is absent from the equation. Peer pressure, press, presence, can all distort the subtle dynamics of the equation in construction. The « collapse of the wave function » reminds one of the transition between a state of oneness with the project, when in the heat of the action, and the sudden halt which occurs under the weight of observation.
Schrödinger’s cat boasts superposed states: it is both dead and alive. Startups are the same. They are alive because they carry a combination of hope, vision and opportunity; they are dead because they live on borrowed time. The challenge is to orient particle spin in the same direction, with decreasing effort. Without vision, phase and direction tend to fall automatically back into the direction of existing inertia. Without a minimum of congruence with surrounding field forces, vision is rowing upstream. But properly orientated, surfing on discrete currents (indicators, imperceptible signs, weak signals) vision will push back the influence of inertia and with perseverance, will gather enough momentum and counter inertia to cancel the old and make the project fall on the «alive » option of the cat.
The main benefit is bringing an alternative to the mechanical thought carried by classical management methods. To a relevant extent, classical methods are inadequate to manage startups, and the inertia of their influence veils this evidence. To address contemporary challenges in entrepreneurship, a new thinking paradigm is necessary.
The world as we know it is principally a world of mechanical behaviour, originating out of stints of non-classical behaviour. Everyone experiences on a daily basis intellectual constructions as devised for example by Darwin, the Impressionists or Ford. Evolution is (mostly) accepted, Degas and company don’t impress in the same way and moving assembly lines are standard.
But what seems to be obvious in a product, service or any other collective behaviour today wasn’t initially blessed with this certainty (think of first car or aircraft configurations and shapes; what were the first rules for two cars at an intersection; and what was the reaction when the Impressionists showed off their new paintings for the first time?).
That we are not privy to this enthralling moment does not mean it did not exist. On a timescale though, it is but a drop in a sea and the early majority only sees the remnants of blurs and hiccups, conveniently excused as “beta”. Very few witness the early hesitations and errors, and even fewer have the tools to analyse this glimpse of creation. Observing startup in formation is almost like observing particles exploding silently and briefly in the Large Hadron Collider. Not to mention you may need to observe a few before you witness the one that counts!
As a result we neglect this founding moment and focus on what is in front of us. Management research is left to observe a result instead of the genesis, in circumstances where time allows for observation and where it can be financed. The consequence is that we find ourselves with classical laws detailing action and reaction, predictability, certainty, precision and non-interference.
The dynamic phase of innovation is critical though, and we seem to be encountering it more often, with the restructuring of information flows, saturated markets and disillusioned workforces, to name a few.
However, as we turn toward innovation, it has the irreverence of highlighting the blatant contradictions of our beliefs. Holding a startup accountable to a five year forecast is ludicrous. Having someone spend more time on the business plan than on the business is suicidal. Striving for six-sigma quality from the onset, without even having a customer, is being blind. Pin-pointing with accuracy your segment without leaving room for doubt is a recipe for trouble.
Staring at these contradictions, many solutions have been offered. The Agile Manifesto with the chaotic nature of its field was maybe the first to react. Steve Blank (1) was a leader in responding to the failings of marketing inertia. Effectuation started the resistance against determinism. Rework (2) is at the forefront of blasphemy in the face of established practices.
These rules, methods and recommendations have greatly contributed to casting doubt on almighty precepts and relieving entrepreneurs or their guilt when not following step-by-step instructions, but following their intuition instead.
The scope of their impact remains however limited, notabl in that their response is focused again on giving new sets of rules. Rather, we need a model that explains the dynamics between different worlds and HOW to apply any rule. The question with respect to certain strategy theories isn’t so much knowing whether they are applicable or not, but to what extent you want to apply them. To what degree do you want to apply your SWOT or your PESTEL? Do you give yourself 15mn or three days? What is your degree of resolution? Bearing in mind that with increased levels of education, the trend is to delve in deeper, not because it is necessary, but because we can do it (and we may need to prove that we have the competence and knowledge).
Therefore, the real quantum leap may be in knowing how much and with what precision, how far to go and when to stop. What level of uncertainty is relevant? How much observation can I take without distorting the intrinsic nature of my business?
In this perspective, innovation is finding the direction of coherence, attaining repeatability, accelerating synchronized particles and then understanding when you’ve reached the point of decoherence, beyond which the subtle bliss of repetition kicks in.
Admitting this model can be relevant, one will contend with the dynamics of innovation with an entirely new perspective, using an analysis grid which is function of the proximity with either of two worlds.
Instead of focusing on what needs to be done, the entrepreneur will notably focus more on how it should be done. One will understand that the precision of action and measurement will depend on the proximity with the point of decoherence. This is as valuable for the depth of a marketing analysis as it is for the details of business planning.
The entrepreneur will bear in mind the question of probability, understanding for instance that to obtain the right formula, many iterations are necessary; to find the right targets many more meetings will be required; to find the right partners will demand that she create her luck through greater exposure.
Though everyone is aware of chance or iteration, suddenly we’ll be able to introduce a progression in this iteration, a framework, allowing to determine how much longer it is before we attain a level of determination.
Observation will also change. When a researcher, an investor or a customer will step into a corporation, they will know whether they have the impact of an astronaut on the moon or of Le Petit Prince on his planet. With the same dynamics in mind, the entrepreneur will improve her marketing effort, understanding that listening to the market actually changes the behaviour of the respondent. As we all know, this is necessary, but if done improperly, any hope of innovation is annihilated.
This is where this approach can highlight the importance of the human factor, how the entrepreneur steps in and lays out a vision that provides a direction in order to resist, with a certain flexibility, the impulsive and conforming feedback from the market. Hence we discover that vision is commensurate to DECIDING that the cat is dead or alive. The startup is in a superimposed state and will fall with equal probability on one side or another of the line if one sticks to classical metrics. Metrics all contain a margin of error that will lead you in circles if not contained. Hence this is where notions such as vision and mission are necessary; this is where innovation truly becomes a human endeavour.
Deciding on a path, in the face of chaos, indetermination and imprecision is key to entrepreneurship, whatever the size of the structure. Understanding the dynamics of vision from a quantum perspective could help build a common thread between the startup and the big corporation.
This approach could help a medium sized enterprise to step out of effectuation and start planning on a greater time scale. Instead of doing with what is at hand – which is beneficial in early stages – it understands its position with respect to decoherence and can start introducing vision that will allow to invest and grow faster.
As our startup will grow, we will move from a one pager to an executive summary and then to a business plan, but always channelled through the vision. As market engagement kicks-in we will start refining parameters and targets. As vision takes momentum we will modify our acceptance of observation.
Larger entities could also benefit form such dynamic approaches. They would know when the benefits of observation are lost; they could vary levels of accuracy from one business unit to another, based on market maturity for instance. Other principles of quantum physics could help them understand the dynamics of trade-offs in decision making.
More importantly though, something we could call Quantum or Decoherence Management, based on models that describe accurately and coherently an existing type of behaviour, backed by mathematical models, could boast sufficient intellectual and practical rigor to present itself as a credible player in the face of long-standing certainties. And even if entrepreneurs and corporate managers had to satisfy themselves with an upper level heuristic serving as a simplification of a deeper-rooted theoretical approach, the benefits would be enormous.
Formalizing this will take time and energy and in-depth knowledge from multiple fields, including mathematics, physics, entrepreneurship, innovation management to name a few.
With this concerted effort, coherence could then be properly injected into innovative, whether in the startup or amidst the corporation, shielded form the incoherence imposed by rote behaviour. Initiatives would then quickly give the precision of lasers, the impact of semiconductors and the agility of quantum computers.
Crucially, we could escape decoherence and find meaning in our actions. Observing the world through theses lenses would kick out the (de) out of decoherence and reveal the real nature of focused, coherent energy.
Drawing by Michael Ramus
(1) Steve Blank with notably The Four Steps to the Epiphany
(2) Rework by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson