Surfing the Boundaries of Order and Chaos with James Evans


July 18, 2022



About This Episode

This week on Culture by Design, Timothy R. Clark is joined by James Evans, Director of Knowledge Lab at the University of Chicago. They talk about how to activate diversity, how to harness collective intelligence, and the paradoxical interplay between innovation and execution. You won’t want to miss the gems from this episode:

What is computational social science? (2:30) Turns out, it's hard to explain. It's how we engage in collective action, thinking, and memory. It's reducing the data to make sense of it. It's using computation to create better social policy. In short, it's unprecedented.

Insights and findings in collective intelligence (8:00). We all need help with maximizing collective intelligence. Dr. Evans shares his insights on the subjects. He highlights the power of diversity of experiences, perspectives, and identities across contexts. 

How to activate the diversity of their team members (12:20). Teams that are “flat” are more likely to combine elements in novel ways and produce disruptive outputs. 

Success is its own worst future failure (13:00). If something succeeds too well., it crystallizes itself and destroys any of the diversity that could make it better. We need to find creative destruction, not destructive creation. Many organizations are compositionally diverse but don’t harness that power. 

Ways to activate diversity in a team (15:45). Big teams are less likely to activate their underlying diversity (more efficient, but less innovative). Cultural flatness dramatically improves innovation. Interdisciplinary teams maximize the possibilities of creation.

Cultural flatness neutralizes hierarchies (23:00). We experience cultural flatness when we’re agnostic to title, position, authority, and power distance. We can debate issues on their merits and remove the exaggerated difference in the chain of command.

What really facilitates productive difference? (36:00) Dr. Evans discusses where innovation actually lies in teams and organizations. Older participants crystallize the system. Diverse expeditions are the real game-changers.

Protecting boundaries and silos create a reservoir of ideas (40:30). This is why innovation is so difficult! It’s a complete paradox. Teams cannot execute and innovate at the same time. We must surf the boundaries between execution and innovation in order to be successful.

About Our Guest:
James Evans is the Director of Knowledge Lab at the University of Chicago, which has collaborative, granting and employment opportunities, as well as ongoing seminars. He also founded and now directs the Computational Social Science program at Chicago, and sponsors the associated Computational Social Science workshop. He teaches courses in augmented intelligence, the history of modern science, science studies, computational content analysis, and Internet and Society. Before Chicago, he received his doctorate in sociology from Stanford University, served as a research associate in the Negotiation, Organizations, and Markets group at Harvard Business School, started a private high school focused on project-based arts education, and completed a B. A. in Anthropology at Brigham Young University. He is especially interested in innovation—how new ideas and practices emerge—and the role that social and technical institutions (e.g., the Internet, markets, collaborations) play in collective cognition and discovery.
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