Be water, my friend!

Back to the Physics of Innovation. When you handle liquids like water or honey, you can see how they flow and move around as the fluids they are, but when you pour them or when you try to stir them with a spoon, it is easy to see that they behave differently. Both are fluids, but they have very different “viscosity”, a measure of how they flow. Imagine your organisation as a cup full of a liquid and innovation as the spoon trying to stir change into it. Where do you think it would be easier to apply innovation, in a water organization or in a honey organization?

So first of all, allow me to talk a little in Physics terms. As usual, these are simplifications and generalisations, so physicists, please bear with me on this. Viscosity is “a measure of its resistance to gradual deformation by shear stress or tensile stress”, that is, “a property of the fluid which opposes the relative motion between the two surfaces of the fluid in a fluid that are moving at different velocities” (Wikipedia). In simple terms, it represents how easily a liquid “flows”. The cohesive forces between the molecules of a liquid are strong enough to keep it together, but weak enough to allow it to flow changing its shape to adapt to the shape of its container. When adjacent layers of the fluid flow against each other, the resistance to that flow is what viscosity represents. Imagine you pour some water along an inclined kitchen tray, it will flow down quickly; however, if you pour honey, it will eventually flow down, but it will take much longer. That is viscosity (more information in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viscosity)

We can relate the concept of viscosity to organisations. This certainly is not a new idea and you can find some examples in the literature, although not as many as I would have thought. We could define organisational viscosity as the resistance to flow, to change shape, to adapt to changes. In some cases the “cohesive forces” between its components are so strong that the organisation actually behaves like a solid (monolithic rigid organisation), and in others, they are so weak that it behaves like a gas (very distributed, weakly linked organisation). Everything has its place in Nature or in the market, but I believe liquid-like organisations are generally the best choice, staying together but being able to adapt. The measure of how easy that flow process is within the organisation would represent its viscosity. In the realm of innovation where this blog dwells, I believe that a lower viscosity organisational environment, where we find faster flow of information, higher speed of adaptation to changes, lower internal opposition to doing things differently, etc.. is certainly a better environment for innovation to take root and progress. Organisational phenomena like bureaucracy, high degree of control, not invented here syndrome, not being able to look up and ahead, feeling no need for change if we have always done it this way, etc, will increase your organisational viscosity and make innovation flow more difficult.

But is higher viscosity always bad, then? As usual, the answer is no, of course not. Going back to our teaspoon example, if we stir the liquid in the centre of the cup, depending on the viscosity of the fluid, that movement will be translated to the rest of the volume with the inner fluid dragging the outer parts. If our liquid were to be an “Ideal liquid” with zero viscosity, the outer parts in our cup would not follow our movement. In an organisation with zero viscosity, innovation would be very easy to apply, but not to extend it, unless we move our agent of innovative change across the whole company. So, as usual, we need to find a compromise.

But what can we do? If we revert back to Physics, viscosity is an inherent characteristic of a fluid and we cannot change it, right? Not completely, because viscosity can be modified if environmental conditions like temperature or pressure change, or if we mix our liquid with some other element (making any sauce in your kitchen is a good example of these changes). So, can we change the viscosity of our organisation to make the life of innovation easier? Of course! We can bring in new elements into the mix like hiring new people with a different mindset that would ease the flow of change, or we can foresee changes in environmental conditions that, for instance, increase the competitors’ pressure on our organisation or the speed of the market “heating” our company to improve its fluidity. However, thinking physically again, not all fluids follow a “linear” Newtonian model regarding its viscosity, some are considered Non-Newtonian because they show a different behaviour. For instance, try mixing cornstarch with water and applying pressure to the mix… it suddenly behaves somewhat like a solid! (watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mYHGn_Pd5M if you don’t believe me)

So, look for your viscosity compromise in the organisation, as this will make the application of innovation easier and more effective, but be careful with the experiments you do to find that balance point, because the organisation may “solidify” on you!

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