What is the Bootstrapping Methodology?


Doug Engelbart with author Karen Risa Robbins (2008)

By guest contributor Karen Risa Robbins.

The Source

Dr. Douglas C.  Engelbart has been called the 21st century successor to Thomas Edison.  Awarded the 2000 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and many other top honors, he conceived and demonstrated a constellation of technological breakthroughs that ushered in personal computing and the internet.  It has been said that In a single stroke he had what might be safely called a complete vision of the information age.”

Engelbart is credited with a remarkable number of groundbreaking inventions.  He credited his inventive strategy, which he called Bootstrapping.  Engelbart became enthralled with the idea that he could intentionally augment mankind’s capabilities for collective problem solving. He spoke about this objective in terms of ‘augmenting human intellect’, and boosting mankind’s collective intelligence.  He named his inventive methodology Boostrapping after the phrase, “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” The term was meant to convey the notion that humans could purposefully lift their collective intelligence to ever higher levels.

Over the years I had the good fortune to work with Dr. Engelbart on several projects. Following are the key takeaways that stand out most in my mind.

The Essence of Bootstrapping: Boosting the Collective IQ
by Improving the Capability Infrastructure

Bootstrapping is focused on significantly improving the capacity of an organization.  It is a method used to dramatically transform the organization’s aptitude.  While a method like TQM focuses on quality, or Lean focuses largely on customer involvement in rapid product prototyping, the Boostrapping method focuses on the foundational capability infrastructure of the organization–what makes the organization capable, or better yet, more capable.

Engelbart’s vision was that underlying everything the organization does is a set of human systems and tools that define its performance edge.  Although the capability infrastructure is generally taken for granted, Engelbart identified it as the central nervous system of the organization, i.e., it essentially regulates the effectiveness of the entity.  He posited the notion that the greatest gains for mankind come when the capability infrastructure evolves, such as the advent of law (a human system) or the plow (a tool).  

Bootstrapping is the method by which organizations intentionally set out to improve their capability infrastructure because they seek an evolutionary level advancement instead of incremental progress.  For example, when Engelbart set out to improve the capability infrastructure for raising collective IQ, it lead him to develop a rich constellation of related inventions that, taken together, have in fact proven transformative for mankind.

Engelbart believed that increasingly organizations would face an unprecedented rate of change and unforeseen challenges. Boostrapping is a highly effective means for an organization to metabolize change while charting its course into an uncertain future, and to help their customers do the same.  

What Bootstrapping Entails

(1) Awareness of the Capability Infrastructure

Bootstrapping is a way of thinking as well as a set of practices.  It starts when an organization absorbs the realization that underlying its operations is a capability infrastructure.  Becoming aware of the capability infrastructure and its core role in determining the organization’s aptitude is an essential first step.

(2) Embrace a Systematic Means to Improve the Capability Infrastructure

Bootstrapping is a systematic means of evolving an organization’s capability infrastructure.  Another way of saying this is that Bootstrapping is a pathway to transforming the organization or the outputs of the organization.  Normally transformation comes as the result of external forces pressing on the organization, or through a sustained period of incremental changes.  The uniqueness of Bootstrapping is that it is a managed process for achieving rapid transformative innovation and it can be practiced by any organization, whether a business, a government agency, an educational institution, or a mission-driven not-for-profit entity.  

(3) Awareness of the ABCs

It is normal for organizations to be totally immersed in their day-to-day work. Bootstrapping calls this kind of work A Level Activity.  Occasionally organizations mount the effort to upgrade systems or implement a different way of doing things.  Bootstrapping recognizes this as improvement work focused on elevating the way the A Level Activity is carried out.  It is labeled B Level Activity. Engelbart observed that B Level Activity is typically ad hoc. Organizations roll out new tools or procedures and think “now we’ll be set.”   There is simply not a lot of attention on improving how things are done, and when B Level Activity occurs, it is typically sporadic.  Missing altogether is what he labeled C Level Activity —  a sustained practice of improving how the organization improves.

Engelbart posited that “establishing an ongoing C Activity […] offers the highest leverage of any activity an organization can pursue.”  The C Level Activity embodies a shift to valuing improvement as an explicit objective and consistent practice focused at the core system level.

 “Engelbart posited that establishing an ongoing C Activity offers the highest leverage of any activity an organization can pursue.”

To better understand the concept, consider how much your organization relies on collaboration to execute its business operations. Now ask yourself, has your organization done anything to improve the way it collaborates?  If yes, that would count as a B Level Activity. Now consider the process by which that change was introduced in your organization. Was it handled the usual way (usual for your organization), or was it approached in an entirely new, more improved way with greater impact than usual?  If your organization were purposefully advancing the art of the how internal processes and tools get improved, that would amount to a meaningful C Level Activity.

(4) Set Up and Network the Improvement Community

Bootstrapping calls for the formation of a special team to spearhead the C Level Activity. Beginning with a small, skeletal team, representatives from previous or ongoing internal improvement efforts are networked to form what Engelbart terms a Networked Improvement Community (NIC). The NIC should be composed of individuals who have the zest and foundational knowledge to effectively develop a “frontier map” of what is happening at the leading edge, and to use that understanding as a springboard for efforts to evolve core capabilities. Bootstrapping advocates the inclusion of stakeholders from different organizational domains to ensure the widest perspective. The NIC is a forum for advancing the art through share and exchange, research, experimentation, and dissemination.  

A multiplier effect is created if this NIC is networked with other NICs inside the organization or external to it.  This meta-level NIC serves as a means of scaling improvement knowledge and activity and proliferating the transformational Bootstrapping as a methodology.  Just as the internet began as a limited network and grew exponentially as individuals found value in connecting and sharing information, Engelbart foresaw the potential for the improvement wave to expand if NICs were forming and participant organizations were connecting and gaining insights and energy from each other.

(5) Frame the Improvement Plan in Mission Level Terms

Engelbart and his lab colleagues were famously prolific and inventive at a foundational level.  This was due in large part to setting their sights on augmenting capabilities rather developing discrete technology systems.  By thinking in more fundamental terms, they stayed away from limiting notions like defining system requirements.  Engelbart and his team were guided by the dim beacon emanating from the mission level objective of augmenting collective IQ.  They asked far out questions for the time like, ‘what would happen if knowledge were not trapped in a static document?’  Each candidate innovation they conceived was viewed as a capability booster, a steppingstone toward the grand goal.  Keeping a grand goal forces the C Level Activity to be exploratory and creative, which is a key to generating transformative ideas and solutions.

(6) Use First Principles Thinking, Explore and Experiment via Pilots

The NIC’s job is not about locking down on incremental point-solutions nor is it about defining system requirements. The charter is to think way outside the box with regard to expanding the capability infrastructure in the subject domain so legacy ideas and their manifestations do not crowd out groundbreaking concepts.

Celebrated inventor Elon Musk, echoes the importance of exploratory thinking[1]:

“The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.” [1]

The poetic salute to discovery by consummate martial arts philosopher Bruce Lee captures the zeal Engelbart felt the NIC must have for exploration and experimentation[2]:

“Learning is a constant process of discovery, a process without end…Please do not take  (a finger pointing to the moon) to be the moon or fix your gaze so intently on the finger as to miss all the beautiful sights of heaven. After all, the usefulness of the finger is in pointing away from itself to the light which illuminates finger and all.”

Bootstrapping views pilot projects as the pilots of improvement.

An interesting example of a deeply hierarchical organization turning to experimenting is the U.S Department of Defense, which has shifted to a capability-based planning approach that stresses the importance of developing “mission package capabilities” in lieu of single-point solutions.  Facing a rapidly shifting world with unpredictable missions, DOD has recognized that strategies born of stovepiped planning and backward looking requirements processes cannot be responsive to a future that is not a linear extension of the past.  The DOD has embraced a process of experimenting, learning, and adapting in place of traditional planning, even articulating levels of experimentation appropriate to different phases of the co-evolution process (e.g., discover, hypotheses testing, confirming).[3]  

“The heart of the coevolution process is experimentation…the process is iterative…the process is one of discovery and testing…the introduction of technology in the form of a system, or a set of materials, is no longer the objective.  Rather, the objective is a set of…mission capabilities.  Hence the degree of the changes required is much greater, as is the number of organizations that must be involved…”

(7) Co-evolve Tools and Human Systems

Our innate abilities are augmented by a system of cultural practices, paradigms, procedures, customs, methodologies, and the like, which Bootstrapping calls the Human System.  We are equally augmented by a physical system of artifacts, facilities, tools, media, machinery, and so on, which Bootstrapping calls the Tool System. Combined, these form our overall Augmentation System.  

Bootstrapping is designed around the recognition that evolution in one system typically has profound impacts on the other system. Engelbart recognized that developments in the tool arena far outpace changes to human systems, and he admonished that this gap could be overly disruptive.  Bootstrapping advocates that as NICs purposefully seek to evolve capabilities, they pay special attention to co-evolving human and tool systems.

Noteworthy is that DOD now talks in Bootstrap terms about co-evolving technology, organization and doctrine so that these elements are synchronized.[4]  

“…the pace of technological advances has quickened to such a degree that current DOD methods of incorporating technology are well behind the power curve…the reason is that the technology development cycle  is out of sync with military strategy and doctrine development.  What is needed is an approach that synchronizes…rather than helping us coevolve, our culture and processes are doing just the opposite.”

Of course, human systems and tools have – and will – evolve and impact each other without a systematic effort at co-evolution.  Yet, Engelbart opined and demonstrated that we can purposefully push the envelope on our foundational capabilities, essentially upping our collective IQ.  Bootstrapping is the methodology created and tested by Engelbart for this objective.  

Engelbart, a system level thinker, was motivated by this vision of our present situation in history[5]:

The complexity and urgency of the problems faced by us earth-bound humans are increasing much faster than our combined capabilities for understanding and coping with them. This is a very serious problem. Luckily there are strategic actions we can take, collectively.

Many readers will be motivated to try Bootstrapping for other reasons, such as spurring transformative innovation in order to drive a company’s business strategy. Mission driven organizations, such as educational institutions and not-for-profit organizations will be attracted to the potential for transformative leading.  Whatever the motivation, Bootstrapping is a powerful yet simple template for organizational and societal transformation.

You can watch Dr. Engelbart’s key lectures on the topic at the
open access
Engelbart Academy on the Doug Engelbart Institute website.
Resources for getting started putting his strategic vision to practice are freely available at
Bootstrapping Brilliance.


  1. Musk also remarks that although reasoning from first principles takes a lot more mental energy, it allows you to innovate in leaps rather than make small improvements.
  2. WHAT IS JEET KUNE DO? by Bruce Lee
  3. Alberts, David S., Richard E. Hayes, Power to the Edge, DOD Command and Control Research Program, Washington D.C. 2003
  4. Alberts, David S., John J. Garstka, Frederick P. Stein, Network Centric Warfare, DOD Command and Control Research Program, Washington D.C. 2003
  5. AUGMENTING SOCIETY’S COLLECTIVE IQ, Keynote Abstract • Hypertext 2004 by Douglas C. Engelbart


dei-advisor-karen-risa-robbinsKaren Risa Robbins has inspired, brokered, and managed partnerships, communities, professional associations, and teams for over two decades. As Co-Founder & CEO of American Technology Alliances (AmTech), she built a suite of services around collective enterprise to facilitate public-private partnerships and cross-sector change initiatives in the R&D space. An attorney, skilled group facilitator and process architect, she handled formation and governance for numerous associations, including the Doug Engelbart Institute, the Global Disaster Information Network, the UAV National Industry Team, and others. Ms. Robbins has advised and supported many high level executives on how to increase collaboration in their organizations, managed stakeholder engagement programs, and developed requirements for groupware. She currently advises clients through her independent consulting practice and is a founding member of The Washington Progress Group, a team developing software and policy solutions for drone safety. She serves on the Advisory Boards of the Doug Engelbart Institute and Ontrack North America. Ms. Robbins is a member of the California Bar and holds a J.D. degree from the University of Santa Clara Law School.

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