Emerging and Disrupting With Purpose

The most disruptive idea in the market right now isn’t a new technology. It’s organizations that can disrupt themselves.

In my last post (which was some time ago), I talked about collective intentionality at the end of a series of posts about emergence. Before I move on, I want to bring the two ideas together.

Emergence is often discussed in scientific contexts as something which doesn’t have purpose on an individual level–only the collective appears to have purpose, as with slime mold finding the shortest path to food despite each individual cell having no such specific intention.

The interesting thing about intentionality is that it doesn’t require conscious thought–as a matter of fact, in its best form intentionality is close to unconscious. Intentionality is directed existence, or “being about something.” In philosophy, “intentionality” is typically used in the philosophy of language, for example, the word table is “about” a table. The word isn’t a table, but to signify a table is the word’s reason for being. If tables didn’t exist (even as a concept), “table” wouldn’t be a word, it would just be a jumble of letters or sounds.

Similarly, when we choose to be intentional, what we are choosing is to be “about” something on a fundamental level. It happens at a more basic level even than a typical mission statement. This “being about” is something Simon Sinek describes in his “Golden Circle” approach: the “why” toward which all action in an organization is directed. It’s true that there isn’t an intelligence directing the movements of slime mold or the flocking of birds, but there are many individual parts combining a few simple rules with a collective objective: to find food, to find warmth, to survive and reproduce. Without intentionality, the movement of slime mold or the flocking of birds would never happen: the birds would fly off in their own directions and the mold would grow aimlessly until it dies.

As humans, our intentions can be much more varied, but it still needs to be fundamental. An organization, for example Gravity Payments, could have an internal manifesto with guiding principles, objectives, goals, key performance indicators, and so on, but all of these are worthless if they don’t draw clear circles to highlight the central “why” of the organization: to simplify transaction processing. Everything CEO Dan Price says to the members of the organization must reinforce its central narrative and focus every individual’s actions toward achieving that purpose. Only when everyone in the organization is moving toward the same purpose, does emergence propel the whole organization.

By establishing intentionality and changing the structure of an organization to better facilitate emergence, the organization will be prepared to increasingly disrupt itself. This doesn’t happen automatically. There are other factors to consider, particularly the diversity of perspective, the responsiveness to external realities such as customers and market conditions, the potential for peaceful revolution within the organization, and so on. These factors can affect the viability of an organization whether it’s a garage-based startup or an entire nation-state.

What all this means is that traditional organizations have it backward: Strategy will take care of itself, if you take care of the people. The decisions made by the so-called executive level will bubble up from what were previously considered the lowest levels of the organization. This requires re-thinking the organization’s relationships to some pretty fundamental principles, including power, employment, and compensation.

I’m eager to get readers’ thoughts about this approach to adaptive organization. What possibilities of this approach excite you? In what ways are you skeptical about this approach? What about the idea requires more clarification?

2 thoughts on “Emerging and Disrupting With Purpose”

  1. “Emergence”, as explained in your opening, reads to me as a process which de-emphasizes the importance or “purpose” of the individual. “Only the collective appears to have purpose”, whereas the component parts are more functional? “Appears” could be the operative word there. Regardless, this was disorienting for me. Later in your post, you discuss “facilitating emergence” as desirable. How can we foster bottom-up vision-building in a framework that seems to emphasize objective over individual?

  2. Thanks for your comment, T.J. There’s some linguistic ambiguity here that I’d love to try to clear up.

    You’re correct that “appears” is the operative word. There’s an assumption, for example, that birds aren’t “trying” to flock, they’re just following individual rules (go in the same direction, don’t get too far from the flock, don’t bump into anyone) and flocking is something that happens as a result. But the emergent “flocking” behavior wouldn’t happen at all if the individual birds didn’t share a common objective to fly south for the winter. So the “purpose” of the emergent behavior is sort of a red herring. It’s not the purpose of each individual bird to “flock,” like some people would expect. Instead, “flocking” is something that happens when each individual bird is working toward the same purpose with a group, following some basic principles of behavior.

    This is just an analogy, of course. The emergent behaviors in human systems are more interesting and varied. But one of the points of facilitating emergent systems is actually to escape the emphasis of objective over individual. In fact, in emergent human systems, it’s the individual’s purpose that matters most. This might sound like it counters my post, so let me dig into it a little further.

    A traditional business objective is related to function rather than purpose. For example: “sell more widgets, get more money, expand the business.” The executive pushes this function down to all the people in the business by promising to pay them more money if they make and sell more widgets. The individual’s purpose in this context is irrelevant to the whole. Her only obligation is to her manager who decides whether she has a job and how much she’s paid for it. The individual has a function, but doesn’t operate with purpose. Emergence is impossible because it’s outside the scope of her function to interact with others in new and unexpected ways.

    The problem in this context is that selling more widgets might not be the best thing for the business. Just ask Kodak. But every individual in the business is there to perform their own function as appointed by the person above them. Unless the person at the top decides otherwise, they’ll keep pushing those film cameras until the day the business runs into the ground.

    In an intentional-emergent organization, the purpose of the whole is owned by each individual. It’s up to the individual to make the organization succeed to the best of her ability. This is a very uncomfortable way to work for most people in today’s world, but that’s largely because it’s different from the way we’ve been raised. I see this approach happening more every day, both at big companies like Zappos and in startups and small academic-sponsored organizations.

    The product of this focus on the individual ownership of purpose, combined with a leader who facilitates emergence, is that an organization without a specific “plan” in place as a whole can end up being more effective and adaptive in the world today than the most rigorously-planned functional strategies. In this context, leadership and management, while still needed, take on a much humbler role.

    So to return to the quote you pulled out, the collective appears to move with a level of purpose that doesn’t seem to be known or planned by the individual. The “flocking” of the organization is its strategy. But the core purpose is in the heart of each individual. The traditional form of “strategy” is no longer necessary.

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