It’s blasphemous to think that Harlem Shake could have anything to do with innovation… It’s disrespectful to waste your precious time with such nonsense. I must be on drugs. But… I am not! Believe it or not, Harlem Shake meme teaches us something fundamental about the change process that takes place in biology. And that insight is the road map to corporate innovation. How? I am glad you asked…
First, let’s start with how change takes place in life… There is a fundamental rule in biology: “Every living organism has the freedom to create itself.” Think about it for a second: Can you forbid a living being from reproducing? You can interfere, but never forbid an animal, plant, bacteria to create itself. As expected, life uses its freedom without reservation. Did you know that your intestine is new every two days, your skin every two weeks, your lungs every three weeks and your liver every five months? It’s all because life has the freedom to create itself. Without freedom, there is no life.
This leads us to the concept of “auto-poiesis”: Life is its own author. Under any circumstances, life does not take order, instead it pays attention to information selectively, interprets it subjectively and reacts autonomously. This is very important, because life’s ability to interpret information and act freely causes unpredictable behaviour, which exactly what biological innovation is all about. “That” is precisely why you can’t give an order to a person and expect him/her to follow it to the letter. To respond to the order, the individual first has to decide to pay attention to the order, then interpret it to make the order his/hers and then act autonomously. To sum up: Biological innovation takes place when life uses the freedom to create itself and reacts in a subjective and chaotic way.
Now, if we look at Harlem Shake, we’ll see the auto-poiesis story clearly! Harlem Shake was established by Australian teenagers (a piece of information) and uploaded to Youtube (information becomes accessible). As more people replicated the original video and uploaded their own versions (selective attention and subjective interpretation), Harlem Shake rapidly became an Internet meme. By February 15, about 40,000 videos had been uploaded, totaling 175 million views (exponential innovation.) According to Wikipedia “the simplicity of the concept allows fans considerable scope in creating their own distinctive variant and making their mark, while retaining the basic elements.” Et voila! Harlem Shake is nothing but an innovation story based on biomimicry!
But, how can you apply auto-poiesis or Harlem Shake to corporate innovation? We now turn to Nilofer Merchant, the Jane Bond of Innovation:
“When you hold an idea like this — in a closed fist – you control it. It is yours. And no one else can access it. Ideas held tightly– as if in a fist – can’t be seen. Sure, if you try really hard, you might be able to see the little bits between the cracks. But they’re hard to see, or share, or steal.
But an idea held in an open hand can evolve. It’s given space to grow bigger. Ideas are actually organic, living things. If they have room to expand, they can quite possibly spread, and be picked up by others and grow into something much, much bigger than what you imagined.”
Had the Australian teenagers held the idea in a closed fist, probably they would still become popular within their local entourage. But, because they opened their fist, now the idea is far bigger than they could have imagined. It goes without saying that auto-poiesis applies to corporations perfectly. With a closed fist, you get a 1st generation iPhone, which only had 15 apps (i.e. Calculator, map, clock etc.) But, when you open your fist, you create the App Store, through which you can sell 40 billion apps.
Let’s end on a funny note. Here is a 4-minute TED talk on how ideas grow. Watch it, think about it, make the idea yours and create your own version. That’s the beautiful process of auto-poiesis…