Innovation is an inherently emergent process. It’s not just about where we want to end up; it’s highly dependent on where we are. Where we begin has a profound impact on where we can go.

For some four decades now, chaos theory and the science of complexity have had a growing influence on diverse fields ranging from weather forecasting to organizational development, and from astrophysics to network theory to leadership. The crucial importance of emergence, or what is often called “dependence on initial conditions” is one of the key characteristics of complex systems. And so it is with innovation.

The universe is emergent. Galaxies and stars and planets formed based on prior conditions; they didn’t just appear. Life is emergent; it doesn’t just happen. Certain conditions need to be present for it to occur and survive and flourish. It has continuity; dogs give birth to puppies, not kittens. And, each of our lives is emergent. Where we’ve been before to a significant degree determines where we are able to go, what limits and opportunities we face.

Successful innovators understand the importance of emergence. They realize that having a compelling vision is not very helpful if we can’t somehow connect it to current realities and find a way to get from here to there. This is especially true of successful entrepreneurs. They know they need more than a great idea; they need to figure out how to make that idea real. That may require capital, expertise, market research and finding the right people. It may also require a strong stomach and more than a little staying power to survive the inevitable setbacks and disappointments. Entrepreneurs ask very pragmatic questions like: Who will value this new offering and what are they willing to pay? What should the business model be in order to capture some of the value we create?

A smart early stage investor takes emergence into account, evaluating not just how good an idea may be, but how feasible it may be, at what cost, in what time frame, and whether the right people are in place to make it happen. “Can you get there?” is just as important as, “Where do you want to go?” The lion’s share of early stage investment is emergent, focusing on the leading edge of technology and trying to exploit what is newly possible without pushing too far too fast.

Innovative companies challenge themselves but only so far. Even a company like Apple is cautious about not straying too fare from its main competencies and the state of the art. Steve Jobs has explained that the idea of an iPad preceded the iPod, but it was held back because of how they saw the critical factors of its success emerging, both in terms of the technology and the market. Steve Jobs felt that the iPod should come first. Judging by the success of both products, apparently he was right.

It was Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things.” When we strive to innovate, we need to be pushing the envelope and breaking new ground. But we also need to be highly sensitive to initial conditions, so that our ideas can emerge successfully.

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