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?