Sunday, August 3, 2008

Postel's Law

"Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others."

This is Postel's Law, also known as the Robustness Principle. Originally, it had nothing to do with politics. It was advice for software designers. But in a strage twist of science -- and what is science but one strange twist after another? -- Postel's law has important implications for any group of people attempting to live and work together, whether that group is a business, a non-profit society, a small state, or an entire civilization.

In short, Postel's Law is applicable to any complex, adaptable organization that is faced with a dynamically changing environment. It might just as well be described as a general law of the evolution of robust organizations.

In business, Postel's Law is particularly applicable in encouraging innovation. In a world where no one person can collect and use all the knowledge dispersed throughout a group, innovation must be a collaborative effort. At the same time, there has to be some reliable process that sorts through the nearly endless stream of innovations and successfully captures the best of those new ideas, without destabilizing the entire effort. The combination of reliability and innovation creates a "robust" system, i.e. a system that can withstand stress.

The most successful organizations do not encourage "gales of creative destruction" so much as they acknowledge the necessity to adapt to the stresses of an ever-changing environment. Innovation is the key to adaptation. The conservative use of a liberal range of ideas is the best way to build an organization that is stable and reliable where it needs to be, and creative and adaptable when it needs to be.

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