Innovate Like a Fish Bowl

Culture Must be Grown, Like Bacteria and Fish

Innovation culture as a competitive advantage isn’t just hard to achieve, it seems most companies don’t even begin to process the multidimensional, biological, complexity of a superorganism in the act of creation.

It’s no wonder new ideas are often rejected by mainstream science. We don’t always have a proper metaphor to describe the phenomena we are experiencing. Complexity’s like that. Network science doesn’t translate easily to everyday life. So we need a stepping stone […]

Stacy Hale via Network Science Needs a Metaphor


I agree.  Network thinking as well as complex adaptive systems design needs metaphors and analogues or the topic is near in approachable.  Of course, the best metaphors in human communication are always found in the stories we tell.

Once upon a time…

My wife and I started a dog rescue a few years back.  It would be an understatement to say that we are animal lovers. So we have a four-legged family member or two now that are ours simply because they were “unadoptable”.  We also took two Love Birds a few months back. This weekend, in true adopt-don’t-shop fashion, we added a new pair of lives to our family: two African Dwarf Frogs.

I’d been asking my wife to keep an eye out for aquariums – even a cracked one – being given away so that I could use it for a mini-greenhouse experiment.  The exchange went like this:

Her: “Honey, did you still want an aquarium?”

Me: “Definitely – what’s living in it?” Half joking…

Her: “Two frogs, do you want to rescue a pair of frogs?”

Me: “Absolutely, I’ve always wanted a frog.”

So I picked them up Saturday, receiving the smaller tank the frogs came in, a larger tank that had been emptied, food, and the water treatment drops.

Stay with me here.

Attempting to sort out how to prepare the larger tank without killing my new frogs, I came across a concept completely new to me – Tank Cycling. Thus the title of this post – “Innovate Like a Fish Bowl” – because, as I researched what Tank Cycling was and why it would be so important to me as a new Frog-Rescuer, I couldn’t help but get excited.

Tank Cycling is the perfect metaphor for how to design for emergence.  Reductionist thinking – the way a child would see an aquarium – views a finite number of variables in isolation and attempts to optimize each one:

  • Do too many or too few fish?
  • Do I have enough water in the tank or do I need more?
  • Am I feeding them the right amount?

Of course, the correlation to how most companies fail to “drive” innovation, especially in tech, has been the topic of most of this blog as a furious and rebellious rejection of “the iron triangle”:

  • Do I have enough resources?
  • Do I have enough time?
  • Am I controlling scope?

We could list 10 more variables, or 30 more, that companies try to tweak in their reductionist view of the for-profit superorganism. We can find examples for each one of why they ought not be maximized in isolation.  It can be disastrous at scale, but in aggregate it results in the mediocrity we have come to expect from most large companies.

“What kind of mindset should we have when looking for causality in networks? A reductionist one looks at pieces and not wholes. […] The more interconnected our world, the more reductionism self-inflicts problems, and the more we need to see in networks.”

via The Dao of Emergence

In reality, it isn’t sufficient for me to say “Innovate in a fish bowl” though, is it?  The metaphor I promised is “Innovation is born in a healthy aquarium.”

Innovation Ecology

So when I say that a company is a complex system that must be designed to promote emergence, where adaptive leadership (creativity, innovation, disruption) is an organic process that “happens to” and “happens with” the system as a whole, I am arguing for a model of understanding that move away from this: aquarium = fish + water + food.  Instead, you must optimize the system as a whole (or you will kill your fish) because an aquarium is a walled-off ecosystem full of biological processes that must be maintained in inter-relationship as a complex system.

In other words, an aquarium must be “grown” for fish and not “filled” with fish.  Just look at this complexity thinking:

“Cycling the tank” means that you are establishing a bacteria bed in your biological filter to remove the toxins that the fish’s metabolism creates. There are right and wrong ways to do this, and several things you can do to slow this process (which you don’t want to do). There are two steps to cycling, but you don’t have to do anything special for either of them. First, your filter will grow a culture of bacteria that digest ammonia and turn it into Nitrite (which is more toxic than the ammonia in hard water or water with a higher pH), then your filter produces bacteria that digest Nitrite and turn it into relatively harmless Nitrate. However, Nitrate will contribute to loss of appetite and stress in your fish, as well as contributing to algae growth, so it is important to do regular small water changes to keep your tank in best condition. Read more on water changes while the tank is cycling.


If you love this metaphor as much as I do, seriously go read the entire site and maybe grow an aquarium of your own.  In the meanwhile, let’s get back to the “problem” of innovation.  Most companies approach product development, strategy, marketing, innovation all in a vacuum.  The attempt to compete with startups and tech companies that have grown up around disruptive technology leads to reductionist, simplistic changes that make for a bigger or more crowded fish tank with fish of increasingly mediocre fish health.

This is fundamental to a western view of causality.  Artificially adding in a process, tool, or “acquiring” talent is like ignoring the “biological filter” that underlies creativity.  Lately it has been called “culture” resulting in a gaming console or beer kegs in companies that are organized to kill the tension you see that organically derives creativity.  Like paying for more ads on your social networks and expecting virality or adding more people to your own social network without investing in relationships – the value that emerges is phenotypical, an outcome of complex biological processes.

So let’s say that you actually want to not only enjoy the beauty of some exotic fish in your own home, but even hope they’ll breed – tantamount to having tech unicorns who will innovate enough on your behalf to disrupt your industry.  The systems view of an aquarium relies on the on the organic growth of a biological filter that will stabilize the environment – multiple cultures of bacteria with different but complimentary jobs must arise to support the presence of a community of fish – and all you can do is measure outputs.

Here is where the real danger occurs.  Most organizations, like the firsttankguide author warns against, think that measuring something must mean it should be optimized, even artificially.  Companies keep dumping chemicals into the water, never creating a sustainable ecosystem.  The fish (creative information workers like designers and developers and content writers) lose their appetite, get sick, and die, certainly prior to procreating.  But that’s okay, there are just so many “fish in the sea”!  Let’s just keep stuffing chemicals and new fish and hope that magic will happen eventually!

It won’t.  There is no magic.  Only death, filth, and decay.

So if you want to “get in on” AI or IoT or Augmented Reality as a company that has built itself on factory-age management practices, prepare to be disappointed unless you take a systems view of what is a truly a complex biological process – a network-become-superorganism.  Innovation is an emergent property of a healthy system of creators, stop treating it the way a child understands a gold fish in a bowl.

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