Building a Double Loop for Liquid Innovation

Building a Double Loop for Liquid Innovation

By relying on transparent decision processes, open information flows, and shared—and celebrated—values, double-loop governance can power a virtual organization to hold together large collections of otherwise independent, and even conflicting, groups (for- and not-for profit organizations, widely scattered science disciplines, suppliers and end users, etc.). They can also house large numbers of self-organizing subgroups, each one of these working teams (the ESIP Federation calls them “clusters”) is committed to specific action points.  This creates what Hagel and Brown (2011) call a “creation net” for open innovation within a virtual organization.

This creation network is enabled by a certain quality of learning within interactions, a greater quantity of information flows (and/or a greater attention to these), an availability of interpersonal trust (based on demonstrated skills and commitment), and an environment of reflexive involvement: all benefits of belonging to  a community-led double-loop governance. When members are given license to form working teams based on their own informed insights into where the adjacent possible is found, creative interactions and new knowledge become predictable outcomes.

The “adjacent possible” is a notion that comes from biological theories of coherent change. It describes how an environment between static and chaos provides a repertoire of available changes. Adjacency is a helpful way to describe how a virtual organization can use a combination of well-designed face-to-face meetings and Internet-based communication/collaboration technologies to create the spaces where, as Matt Ridley ( calls it, “ideas go to have sex.”  If you can point to your organization and truthfully say: “this is where ideas go to have sex,” (or something like that), then you’ve built a place where the idea makers among your members will be happiest and most creative.

Steven Johnson, <>, uses the metaphor of “liquid” to describe the optimal network environment to enable innovation (Johnson, 2011). “Solid” networks are too stiff to pivot toward “the adjacent possible” where new ideas sprout. “Gas” networks are too chaotic. “In a solid, the opposite happens: the patterns have stability, but they are incapable of change. But a liquid network creates a more promising environment for the system to explore the adjacent possible. “ (Kindle Locations 611-614).

More specifically, liquid networks—and the virtual organizations that create these—enable individual members to explore the adjacent possible; “When the first market towns emerged in Italy, they didn’t magically create some higher-level group consciousness. They simply widened the pool of minds that could come up with and share good ideas. This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 677-680). The liquid network is another way of talking about network diversity, the optimal mix of strong ties, weak ties, and strangers in direct communication (See: Ruef, 2002) that is a strong predictor for innovation.


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