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?

Nourish the Unexpected: Facilitating Emergence

It’s not quite enough to stop controlling in order for the people in your organization to do self-managed, unprecedented work. Facilitating their work is also critically important.

Facilitation nourishes and encourages people in several ways. It feeds the part of us that wants independence and mastery because a more experienced manager/co-worker is helping us with a goal instead of exercising command over it. It feeds the part of us that wants social validation: if someone is helping us accomplish a goal, it tells us the goal is worth accomplishing. It even feeds the part of us that’s lazy–that is, the part that wants to accomplish our goals while using the smallest amount of energy possible.

Think of your organization as a computer:

Algorithmic Containmentphoto credit: Algorithmic Contaminations via photopin (license)

A computer is highly structured, functional, and hierarchical, but in order to continue running the latest software, it has to be continually upgraded and redesigned. A computer doesn’t grow on its own. This is the traditional organizational model.

Now think of your organization as a garden, growing all kinds of plants:

English gardensphoto credit: Gardens at Canons Ashby via photopin (license)

You can select the kinds of plants to grow, you can fertilize and water them to help them grow faster (but not too much or it will choke them), and you can trellis them to help them grow in a certain way, and you can prune them when they grow in ways that aren’t fruitful. Plants in a garden grow on their own, but left untended, weeds will sprout up and diseases will take hold and some plants won’t receive enough nutrients.

(Doesn’t this second metaphor sound like your organization already? Why do we so often feel like we need the additional layer of inorganic structure, except that we want an illusion of control that we don’t actually have?)

Facilitation is the art of pruning, trellising, weeding, hedging, fertilizing, and helping your organization grow. You don’t order a pear tree to blossom, you don’t command bees to pollinate, you don’t provide tomatoes with minimum production quotas. You also don’t give them these initiatives and then go back inside your house and expect everything to work unless you’re told otherwise.

A similar approach can be used to grow your organization.

Consider an example of a great gardener: Brian Grazer, movie and television producer and co-founder of Imagine Entertainment. Grazer’s preference to ask questions and make requests rather than give orders helps gain buy-in, makes people feel respected, and allows him room to doubt his knowledge without being hands-off. As a leader, he uses questions and requests as a form of trellising, guiding people to grow in a certain direction rather than commanding them to do so.

The kind of gardener you become is up to the specifics of your situation. So long as you’re seeking to grow your people and your organization, you will treat them with care and make sure they have the resources, support, and guidance they need to grow in the way that’s best for them. Being neglectful and being overattentive both have their hazards.

Have you ever worked with a good “gardener?” What have you learned from these people who dedicate themselves to growing their people, their organizations, and even their strategies?

How Emergence Works in Organizations

Emergence isn’t about collecting a bunch of fine people and letting them do what they want with no structure of any kind. In fact, emergence needs structure–just not the same kind of structure traditional organizations use.

Functionally speaking, the traditional top-down structure is a method of augmenting one person’s ideas with the minds and bodies of others–like a human Voltron.

Voltron with an overlay of an org chart

This is familiar to our way of thinking–a reflection of Industrial Age ideals of order, rationality, and efficiency. But Voltron is ultimately a machine, and as we enter the Second Machine Age, organizational structures that mimic machines are going to fall by the wayside: they are less efficient than actual machines, and less adaptive (in an evolutionary sense) than organic communities.

Consider the example of Microsoft’s .NET versus the open-source Ruby On Rails: the closed, controlled, heavily planned product has consistently lost market share for years, while the decentralized, agile developer community has turned out a consistently more popular and more useful product. In terms of external incentives and long-term planning, Microsoft should have the better product. Instead, Microsoft is planning to make .NET open-source because of the spectacular failure to keep up. The organic community has unequivocally trumped the traditional model.

Let’s take another stab at that organization chart. Take the person at the top and place her instead in the middle. Connect her to all her sources of information, her co-workers, the people who report to her, the people to whom she reports. Do the same for each of those people to whom she’s connected, outward until everyone in the organization is accounted for, and connect each of them with their points of contact to the outside world. What you have now much more resembles a neural network:

Map of the neural network of a mouse

This isn’t an aspirational image, it’s a reflection of reality–a reality that the former image attempts to control and confine into a linear hierarchy. For comparison, here is a map of Twitter employees using the platform:

Network map of Twitter employees

Seeing an organization in this way–as it organizes itself, and not as the linear design into which we try to squeeze it–reminds us of the first principle of emergent structure: the number and quality of connections improves emergent behavior.

This isn’t a call to increase the number of networking events at your business. Human beings will create connections on their own if given the right environment.

Consider Google’s practice of mixing functional groups on the floor. While this would be anathema to a linear hierarchy–I would have to walk to another part of the building to talk to a co-worker–at Google, the people around you may become your co-workers. Some businesses have replicated the design without taking into account the hierarchy and culture, resulting in marginal improvements at best, and often employee frustration. (Even at Google the practice is not without its drawbacks, but it is an intentional culture play.)

The quality of the connections is likewise based on trust; the traditional organizational structure makes trust unnecessary, and by making it unnecessary, undermines it. This leads to a second principle of emergent structure: where traditional organizations depend on chain of command, emergent structure depends on social contracts.

A social contract is, at its most basic, an agreement held in common between any number of people, either written or implied. Top-down structures choose policies and impose them. Leaders of adaptive organizations make a case that a policy is in the best interest of the organization, and modify it based on the needs and applicability to a particular population. We all agree that we need to follow a certain regulation or we will face prosecution, therefore we promise to follow that regulation and hold one another to it.

In this way, instead of imposing a rule that employees follow like the speed limit (seven miles per hour over isn’t really speeding, you know), employees are accountable to one another for their actions. We all know we have made the promise with one another; when I violate the promise, I have broken my promise with everyone in the organization.

Social contract underpins the entire structure of a culture. When I expect that I have ownership over my work and it won’t be taken away from me and given to someone else, that is an implied social contract. When I expect that I can do my work every day without fear of sexual harassment, that is (usually) a written social contract.

Social contract also defines the leadership of an organization. A person can be an owner if he has enough money, and he can be a manager if he has enough connections, but he can only be a leader if he has people willing to follow him.

Finally, in addition to good connections and social contracts, emergent structure requires process. This may seem to contradict what I’ve said so far, except that human processes are approximate–they are always applied using judgment and a “feel” for the particular situation.

Human process is an interesting phenomenon. Machine processes can be made to take variables into account, but machines don’t make judgments. And machines don’t vary processes in ways they haven’t been explicitly programmed to learn, i.e., they don’t introduce personal experience or personal interpretation. Emergent behavior in an organization depends upon human experience and variability, working against an established process, to produce unexpected outcomes. Only processes that are documented and followed can be improved. Everything else is folk knowledge, which is improved by rare individuals and passed piecemeal to others.

This kind of adherence to and improvement of process depends wholly upon social contracts and quality connections: I must know that I am not documenting my changes to the process on behalf of some uncaring management four levels above me, I’m keeping rigid documentation on behalf of people like myself in the organization who are doing their best to cover for one another and keep things moving.

This is why I encourage you to abolish the idea that there is a “top” or “bottom” to your organization. The goal is to have a structure where everyone finds the most appropriate place for as long as that place is appropriate, not a structure where everyone struggles to climb as high as they can. In order for this to work, we also need to rethink the role of leadership in such an organization–because it is still critically important–and what that leadership is attempting to do.

I’m eager to get your thoughts on all this. Did any of this sound like an organization where you’ve worked, either under the traditional model or under a more adaptive approach? Have you seen leaders embrace the “neural network” of organization and truly try to engage all their members in uniquely meaningful ways?

When You Stop Controlling, What Emerges?

In my last post I mentioned emergent behavior is a strength of adaptive organizations.

A definition of emergent behavior: A behavior is emergent if it’s something the collective does without any individual intentionally aiming to  it belongs to a collective but not to the individual components that make up the collective. It’s sometimes used interchangeably (even though it isn’t strictly interchangeable) with “self-organizing.” The movement of a flock of birds, for example, isn’t led or organized, but nonetheless ends up creating a beautiful, organized pattern–so much so that scientists long hypothesized that there was some sort of organization or leadership.

On the surface level, it’s easy for leaders to get excited about emergent behavior. It’s engaging, it’s innovative, and because of its connection to artificial intelligence, it sounds futuristic. But as soon as you start to dive into the details of emergence, it starts to get scary very quickly.

Emergence not only unplanned but unplannable. It doesn’t obey a strategy or market tactics. We’re able to tell the stories of the individual parts of a system, and we’re able to tell the story of the system as a whole, but the individual story and the story of the whole are not clearly and causally related. In other words, it’s not possible to control emergent processes to create a specific desired outcome–at least not without some kind of mind control.

To most business leaders, this makes emergence a non-starter, or at the very least makes it something they would limit to a dark corner of the dreaded Innovation Department. Our objective is to contain what we can’t control and subdue it with everything we can control. Giving up control is the exact opposite of what I try to do every day.

The good news is that, although I’ve written quite a few words already about emergent behavior, I haven’t yet mentioned what emerges.

  1. Leadership. We all know leadership and management are not the same thing. Management is a way of delegating down a chain, percolating down to (one can hope) the right people for each task. By contrast, a leader only exists because there are people who choose to follow. Leadership is visionary and inspiring–not the mushy feel-good kind, but the kind that puts such a strong idea in your head that you will stick with it through disagreements and difficulties, even through loss and sacrifice.
  2. Culture. Culture is already an emergent phenomenon, but a particularly interesting one because it works as a feedback loop: culture emerges between people, but then it is identified and qualified and absorbed by the individual who goes on to influence the culture. But even with that in mind, managers still attempt to control culture as though it were something that could obey their will if only they tried hard enough.
  3. Strategy. Slime mold is so efficient at finding food that scientists spent several years laboring under the hypothesis that they would find “controller cells” that coordinated the behavior of the colony. Emergent strategy adapts to present conditions more quickly than planned strategy because its members are responding directly to stimuli, and due to its parity with the pace of culture it is just as good or better at future-readiness. What’s more, due to its emergent properties, it scales much more effectively than planned strategy. (The flip side of its scalability is that emergent strategy is less effective in smaller organizations; emergence is itself something of a network effect.)

I want to emphasize that emergence doesn’t mean surrendering your organization to chaos and anarchy. I will delve further into the subject, but for now just imagine that your organization is your back yard. At present, at its best, your backyard is neatly mowed, has some nice lawn furniture and a couple of lawn games. I’m not suggesting you should let your lawn be reclaimed by nature–covered in scraggly bushes and weeds–but that your lawn could be a Japanese garden, a beautifully manicured work of nature. Without the self-directed growth of the plants, it wouldn’t be possible, but likewise it wouldn’t have form or meaning without the care given to cultivating and pruning those plants.

I’d like to take this opportunity to do a check-in with you. What excites you about emergence? What concerns you? I have several posts in the works, but I’m interested in where you want this to go next. Let’s have a conversation in the comments.

The Strengths of Adaptive Organizations

While most of my posts can be applied to many different kinds of organizations, and even more can be applied to businesses specifically, I write all my posts with adaptive organizations in mind.

Adaptive organizations are generally loosely-structured, non-hierarchical, and depend on temporary teams to pop up and disband on their own. They’re the primary focus of Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations, as well as the driving philosophy behind the consulting firm Undercurrent.

Adaptive organizations are designed to maximize the co-operation of human and machine. Unlike Industrial Age organizations, adaptive organizations (what Frederic Laloux calls “teal” organizations) do not rely on humans functioning as machines. Instead, they depend on the value created by healthy individuals, collected from diverse backgrounds and bonded into communities by a common vision for the future.

The contrast between the two concepts can be so pronounced that some can’t even fathom how these futuristic organizations would work. But the fact that adaptive organizations are already beginning to emerge (as with Spotify, Valve, and GitHub) shows that they aren’t just a philosophical exercise. They are real, they are successful, and they will continue to thrive.

Laloux outlines three principles of adaptive organizations: self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose. While these are incredibly useful guidelines for creating a future organization, they don’t quite explain why adaptive organizations work. I’d like to propose three corollaries to Laloux’s principles.

  1. Traditional organizations rely on planned behavior; adaptive organizations encourage emergent behavior. Traditional organizations are heavily planned: they hire people with specific skill sets to fit into specific roles and accomplish specific tasks that make up a system that’s carefully designed to play out the vision of the entity at the top. This ultimately makes traditional organizations less than the sum of their parts. Adaptive organizations operate at the opposite end of the spectrum: they expect employees to manage themselves and one another dynamically. Fixed hierarchy is counter-productive because it limits deviation from an established agenda; in a fixed hierarchy, I don’t have much room to do anything that doesn’t directly benefit my immediate supervisor, and he in turn has little room to do anything that doesn’t benefit his immediate supervisor. Designing an organization to encourage emergent behavior means opening up to unplanned innovation by anyone at any time. It can be equal parts dangerous and game-changing; the art and science of emergent behavior is to minimize the danger without discouraging the game changers.
  2. Traditional organizations consolidate efforts in an attempt to design the best, most efficient single outcome; future organizations rely on multiple discovery to generate iterative, multi-dimensional innovation. When a traditional organization discovers two different efforts to accomplish a similar goal, it’s seen as inefficient. Duplicative efforts are shut down and/or consolidated into one another, leading to political battles and possibly resentment on the part of the employees who were trumped. These consolidation efforts frequently fail, either in process (they are never completed) or in product (the outcome is too unwieldy or unhelpful). Multiple discovery allows several efforts to reach the same point from multiple directions, or to reach different points from a similar origin. The outcomes of the individual efforts tend to be leaner and more focused, and if one option fails there are others at the ready.
  3. Traditional organizations depend on metric productivity (output divided by hours divided by pay rate); adaptive organizations develop unique value. Metric productivity is the enemy of unique value: it suggests that all products, customers, and employees are comparable and judges each employee against some Platonic ideal of productivity. Metric productivity is what causes us to believe that putting in more hours makes us more valuable to our employer, that what we do to our bodies in our off-hours isn’t important to what happens when we’re on the clock, that our mental and spiritual and social well-being is something we do on our own time and work doesn’t factor into it. But metric productivity isn’t just bad for employees, it’s also a dead end for employers. If your concern is wholly for metric productivity, chances are high that you’re in competition with someone. Competition is a sinkhole. If you’re not digging yourself out of it and creating unique value, you’re bound to lose.

This is how adaptive organizations can thrive in spite of the concerns that keep leaders locked into traditional models. Adaptive organizations eschew the assumptions of traditional organizations–efficiency, competitive pricing, planned behaviors and outcomes–and take the lead because they engage both employees and customers in a way that makes traditional competition obsolete. They also gain efficiencies in unexpected ways–from Buurtzorg spending less time on patients by spending more time with them, to Netflix’s “the best are 10x better than average” philosophy. In the end, adaptive organizations are even better than traditional organizations at traditional metrics, because they focus on purpose and put the future of their organization in the hands of each individual. Instead of focusing on functional planning, an effective leader provides focus, narrative, and inspiration to the efforts of the collective–as Saint-Exupery puts it, she teaches them “to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

This post serves as the frame for my next several posts, in which I’ll tackle multiple discovery and dig further into emergent behavior to provide some practical understanding of how to apply these concepts to a real organization.

What do you believe about adaptive organizations? What’s keeping you from applying these principles to your own organization? I look forward to discussing with you in the comments.