The Pebble and the Avalanche:
How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions

by Moshe Yudkowsky
reviewed by Bryan Watson

The Pebble and the Avalanche paints a sweeping picture of the role of disaggregation in innovation and change, but falls just short of providing those deep underlying principles necessary to fully understand the intricacies disaggregation and implement it as a process for growth.

The core of the book is found in Part I, with Parts II and III providing illustrative case studies and interesting examples of strategies for disaggregation.

In Part I, Yudkowsky begins by examining disaggregation, its definition and its role in creating innovation and change. In defining disaggregation Yudkowsky analyses the sort of things that can be disaggregated, including, authority, ownership, mechanics, space/time, and concepts. While pointing out these examples of things that can be disaggregated is quite insightful and useful in stimulating the reader to think of his own examples in each category, this reader was left grasping for the underlying conceptual common denominator between these examples: What are the essential features that bind all these examples of things that can be disaggregated?

Yudkowsky moves on to speak about the universal benefits that can be reaped from disaggregation: creativity, cost reduction, competition, simplicity, specialization and synergy. Here again Yudkowsky has done a very good job of abstracting the benefits of disaggregation in all of its forms, and sketching those benefits with concrete examples. The reader, however, is again left searching for the integration of these abstractions to form a single underlying principle that can be used for any example imaginable and reap benefits not limited to these provided in later parts of the book.

In the final chapter of Part I, Yudkowsky delves into the process of innovation through disaggregation, breaking it into four stages: devise the innovation, interface the disaggregated pieces to ensure they continue to work, foster acceptance of the innovation by interested parties, and evaluate the outcome. Overall this section of Yudkowsky's book is quite insightful; exploring the steps to planning and executing an innovation revolution. The 'devise' section of this chapter, outlining how to generate an innovation through disaggregation, is again plagued with a lack of in-depth analysis seen in the earlier chapters. From 'simple inspection' to 'restate your question' to 'smash and grab' the reader is asked to simply find innovations. An epistemological analysis of how to recognize innovations through disaggregation is desperately needed in this section to complement the strategies for its deployment, such as 'smash and grab'.

As Yudkowsky develops his case studies and examples in Parts II and III, which are, it must be said, a pleasure to read, he hints at a more in-depth analysis of disaggregation. However, having not outlined it in the formative Part I of his book, the reader is still left somewhat in the dark.

The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions tackles a problem I am personally passionate about: how to generate innovation. Yudkowsky, has taken a preliminary step in analysing this problem through disaggregation, and provides a perceptive description of its categories, benefits, and the necessary factors to making the innovation work. Three vital areas of analysis are, unfortunately, missing in Yudkowsky book including:

  • A integrated concept outlining the features of those things that can be disaggregated;

  • Principles defining the benefits of disaggregation; and

  • An epistemological analysis of how to recognize innovations through disaggregation.

The Pebble and the Avalanche is a good first step in the analysis of innovation via disaggregation, providing much descriptive insight. That said, there is a great deal of room in this area of the literature on innovation for further in-depth conceptual analysis.

Bryan J. Watson is Executive Director, CEO Fusion Center, BA, M.Litt. in Management, Economics and International Relations, entrepreneur, intrapreneur, strategy and emerging growth company consultant, traveller, and lover of a good dram of Scotch on the top of mountains in Scotland. He is also an occasional reviewer for The CEO Refresher. His mailing address for review copies of new releases is here - .

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Copyright 2006 by Bryan J. Watson. All rights reserved.

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