Jelly, cooperative work, and adaptive strategies

Biz Stone, formerly of Twitter and co-founder/CEO of Jelly, and his friend and co-founder/CTO Ben Finkel have finally revealed the application they’ve been working on since last fall. An iOS (at present) app called Jelly that I would characterize as a crowdsourced, cooperative search engine.

Introducing Jelly

Humanity is connected like never before. In fact, recent white papers have concluded that the proverbial “six degrees of separation” is now down to four because of social networking and mobile phones. It’s not hard to imagine that the true promise of a connected society is people helping each other.

As Biz Stone says in the video introducing the app,

“If you have a question, there is someone out there that knows the answer.”

While that may not be true in all cases, it is true in a large majority of them.

Here’s Biz circling a photo of an art piece in the Presidio, and asking what it is.

Screenshot 2014-01-07 15.01.14

Here’s the response from a friend of a friend in his social scene, telling him the name of the piece and the artist’s name.

Screenshot 2014-01-07 15.01.31

This is a great example of the loosely connected nature of cooperative work, which will be increasingly important in the world, and soon will become the dominant modality of work, as well.

As Seth Godin recently wrote there are three ways to deal with the future: accurately guessing what will happen (good luck in this economy), resilience (applying adaptive strategies to what emerges), and denial (such as believing tomorrow will be just like yesterday). Godin points out that resilience is best when you don’t know:

Resilience is the best strategy for those realistic enough to admit that they can’t predict the future with more accuracy than others. Resilience isn’t a bet on one outcome, instead, it’s an investment across a range of possible outcomes, a way to ensure that regardless of what actually occurs (within the range), you’ll do fine.

Although he doesn’t generalize this as adaptive strategies, and he only talks about running many experiments. I think cooperation is another such strategy.


The canard — ‘the right information to the right person at the right time’ — is the endlessly repeated mantra of old timey collaboration vendors. Those interested in the new way of work simply aren’t interested in that sort of hypothetical efficiency: instead, they are looking for effective adaptations to the dilemma of not knowing what the best path or the right person is.

The now traditional collaborative approach in business is based on non-adaptive premises, that the challenges this year will a lot like last year’s. So people are assigned roles, and an organization is structured to manage the inputs and outputs of fairly well-defined business workflows based on fairly concrete assumptions about customer expectations, and how to measure progress. This takes time to define, design, and to hire to. If something comes along to shake up those premises, the system must be reset, which takes time and leads to possibly finding different people, and rethinking the flow of work. The resilience of collaborative work is low, because it is outside of the work, an afterthought: it is not built-in.

Jelly is a counter example. Each user is tied to their own connections, their own set of friends. Requests propagate from friend to friend, from set to set, without the initial requester — or anyone else — trying to analyzing what is the best way to rout the question to the right person. The canard — ‘the right information to the right person at the right time’ — is the endlessly repeated mantra of old timey collaboration vendors. Those interested in the new way of work simply aren’t interested in that sort of hypothetical efficiency: instead, they are looking for effective adaptations to the dilemma of not knowing what the best path or the right person is.

Even in this simple example, Biz has reached beyond his personal set of connections out into the larger social scene: the friend of a friend, someone he possibly does not know. And that person is willing to cooperate and provide his knowledge or insight to help Biz with his question. To generalize, this doesn’t have to be just about Jelly and asking questions with images. It could be about installing a blog template in Tumblr, or how to use GitHub for a particular issue, or who is a good contact at Jive to talk about StreamOnce.

This is a key pattern in the future of cooperation at work and the new way of work.

The freethinking aspect of this is to realize that in times of uncertainty and ambiguity spending time building organizational structures that act as lines people must stay within is very occasionally a lucky bet, and generally a costly mess. The alternative is application of distributed cognition, and harnessing the resilience latent in loosely connected networks of cooperators.

So, while Jelly may not be targeted at business, I wouldn’t be surprised to see two or three products launched in the near future, positioned as ‘Jelly for business’. And it will be a killer niche, too.

 

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Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

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