What is “capitalism?”

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“To put capitalism into perspective next to similar ideas in physics, capitalism is like Newtonian physics. We still use Newtonian physics for some purposes, but imagine if technologies refused to take relativity or quantum mechanics into account–we wouldn’t have inventions like GPS or e…”

I’m giving myself some permission to provide a definition of capitalism as I understand it, and not the absolute best definition of the word. Books have been written about the subject, and the way capitalism works has shifted a lot since the 1700’s when its foundational treatises were written by Adam Smith and his contemporaries. So the definitions I land on are going to be imperfect, incomplete, and only relevant to the present time–a different definition may be more applicable in, say, 1900 or 2100.

What is an “economy?”

First, we need to make sure we’re on the same page about what an “economy” is. The way it’s discussed can make it sound like a vast, unknowable thing that needs to be handled gingerly for fear of ruining it.

An economy is a tool. It falls into the same broad category as a wrench, a government, a personality test, and an atomic bomb. Specifically, an economy is a tool that helps a collective (a family, a city, a country, a world) distribute the resources available to it.

Like other tools, it’s good for some things and not for others. Like other tools, it can be handled properly or improperly. And like a lot of other tools, it’s possible to improve upon its design–either to make it more useful overall, or to make it better at some specific thing you need to use it for.((For example: a hammer with a shock-absorbing grip is an overall improvement, while a rubber mallet is a specific type of hammer that specializes in doing particular tasks well.))

This definition is important because of language that’s often used around economic questions. For example, it’s often asserted that socialized medicine would lead to “rationing.” However, since medicine is part of the “economy,” it’s already “rationed”–it’s rationed by the market by setting higher price points for more complicated and rarer products, instead of being rationed by someone making a decision about who gets what. Setting a high price for something is a way of rationing that item to people who have the ability to pay for it.((One of the forces changing the economy today is that there are significant resources on the Internet that don’t need to be rationed, including information obtained through searches, social media posts, even video streams to a lesser extent. Since humanity isn’t capable of consuming all of the resources that one company is capable of producing, this results in a winner-take-all scenario that was extraordinarily rare before about 1998. Google receives nearly 80% of search traffic, but you can’t split up Google’s search engine as though it’s a monopoly because after an initial period of confusion, most of those users would settle on one of the two new engines, making it the “new Google.”))

Any given economy has many ways to ration out its resources. In the United States, for example, we ration out emergency services based on people calling 911. In principle, we could let the market take care of emergency services, and you’d either have to sign up for a subscription (like an alarm company) or give them a credit card number before they put out the fire in your house, but at some point we decided to pay for emergency services with tax dollars instead, and ration out those services based on who was asking for them. But whether they’re handled by the market or by 911, centralized emergency services are part of how we distribute resources, and so they’re part of our economy.

Isn’t “capitalism” just a fancy word for “free market?”

“Capitalism” and “free market” are different things. Free market just means that anyone is able to sell a new product to compete with others that already exist in the marketplace. It’s the opposite of “monopoly,” whether that monopoly is owned by a single powerful business or a government entity. It’s a pillar of capitalism, but an economy doesn’t need to be capitalist to have free markets.

I’m not convinced there’s any such thing as a “free market economy.” Just like socialism (discussed below), there are different degrees to which an economy’s markets are free. Some items may be completely unregulated, while other items may be sold from only one vendor or handled outside the market.

Some products and services might be handled better by a free market, while other products and services are better handled by a regulated market or a closed market.((John Stuart Mill says in Principles of Political Economy, “Laissez-faire, in short, should be the general practice; every departure from it, unless required by some great good, is certain evil.” This represents the attitude of later “free-market” economists, including Milton Friedman (who, unlike Mill, held to this dogma his whole life). But careful readers will notice that even Mill allows for regulation when required by “some great good”–and as capital markets have become more complex, “good” and “evil” have also taken on complexity. Mill might have changed his mind about some things if he’d seen the financial instruments that brought about the housing crisis in 2008.)) You don’t have the ability to sign up for a private fire extinguishing service when you buy a home–that’s a market that isn’t free. Your house may be required to meet local building codes, but you can hire any licensed contractor to make sure it does–that’s a free but regulated market. You can also buy whatever decorations you want to put inside your home that are made by anyone, provided they don’t break other laws (e.g., they aren’t filled with cocaine or made with the fur of endangered animals)–that’s a free and unregulated market.

A market completely free of regulation only remains a free market for a short period of time. Markets left to themselves tend to eat themselves((Through mergers, acquisitions, or winner-take-all competitions.)) until only monoliths exist that are capable of either decimating or acquiring all their rivals.((Amazon is an example of a company that has been able to acquire or destroy most of its competitors before they came to be big enough to pose a challenge, however, it fails to meet the definition of a traditional monopoly because retailers like Wal-Mart still hold a non-trivial portion of the online market.)) Regulations are needed to prevent monopolies from forming and to ensure fair competition and consumer transparency (for example, without regulations McDonald’s would never have to tell anyone they’re putting sawdust in their food to make it cheaper).

The idea pushed by neoliberal (free-market) economists like Friedrich Hayek is that the free market is much more effective at distributing resources than any government could ever be. Some economists including Milton Friedman argue that allowing the market to distribute resources also maximizes efficiency and manages to create more resources where previously there were fewer.((A lot of economists believe “efficient market theory” was debunked in the 2008 market collapse. Market pricing itself was thrown off by the irrational behaviors of the actors within the market, proving that market prices could be inefficient for extended periods of time.)) But there are probably very few people who wouldn’t concede that at least some circumstances require us to offer resources based on need and not the ability to pay, and you won’t find many people who think we should do away with all money and assign resources only based on need either. Most economies will include some elements of free markets and some elements of central planning.

So what is “capitalism?”

Capitalism has a few basic features we’ll be looking at over the next several posts:

  1. Pricing: This is supposed to be the real advantage to capitalism. If a government entity tries to decide how much a new product might be worth, they might end up picking a number out of the blue that really doesn’t reflect everything that goes into making that product or what people could feasibly pay for it. But if a business tries to sell that product on the open market and another business tries to sell a similar product, the two competitors will keep adjusting their prices until they both hit a spot where they’re making acceptable profits or one of them has gone out of business.((This is what’s called a Nash Equilibrium. It doesn’t actually maximize benefit for anyone, it just describes the inevitable price points for competing products and vendors given what one’s competition will do.)) (There are a lot of problems with market pricing when rational decision-making is compromised and/or when long-term impact is taken into account. We’ll get into that later.)
  2. Value: Everything, no matter how abstract or intangible, can be assigned a monetary value. This includes the value of an idea, a policy, or a human life. It suggests that everything in existence, both real and imagined, can be valued in terms of the amount of money that would be paid for it. Items that have complex value (for example, human beings) are simplified to the relevant value–a human being might be valued based on her accounting skills when she’s being hired at an accounting firm, but would be valued based on her public speaking skills if she’s being hired as a diplomat, or valued based on the cost of a wrongful death settlement when a car company is thinking about recalling its airbags, or valued by the total of all the potential money she would have made over the rest of her life if an economist is trying to determine the economic impact of her early death. It’s a simultaneously practical and horrifying way of thinking about the world.
  3. Means of production: In a capitalist economy, the government doesn’t own assets such as farms, factories, workshops, recording studios, and oil refineries–the means of producing the products we buy. The “means of production,” as they are called, are owned by private citizens, either individually or as corporations, trusts, funds, cooperatives, and similar structures.((The line between “government” and “corporation” is much murkier than politicians make it out to be. It’s not inappropriate to think of the market as a de facto fourth branch of American government. Whoever holds the means of production is able to set rules and determine important aspects of the lives of citizens. In this light, it may deserve the same respect as, say, the judiciary, but it should also be treated as limited.))

    The means of production are the source of all wealth. Labor isn’t important to capitalism–it represents a necessary expense in order to extract the value from assets, and should be minimized as much as possible. Capital–or the means of production–is what’s important. Labor is paid with wages that get spent on products. Capital yields profits that are invested into more capital. Labor is always depleting resources while capital is always accumulating them.

    The basic idea put forward by Adam Smith back in the 1700’s is that someone controls the capital–a needle factory, for example–and hires other people to work for him. These employees are able to produce a lot more than they would if they were working alone because they’re able to specialize into the tasks they’re most competent at performing–for example, pulling the wire, cutting the wire, shaping the head, sharpening the tip. Where one person could make, say, 200 needles per day doing every task on her own, four people could make 2,000. In Adam Smith’s ideal world, the workers get more money than they would on their own because they’ve produced more needles, and the factory owner would harvest the excess value–for example, if each employee gets 300 needles worth of wages, the factory owner would still get 800 needles worth of profits.((Adam Smith was idealistic in his illustration. The more likely economic reality of this scenario is that the employees get the lowest wages that the factory owner can offer them, because the factory owner is able to price his needles lower than the needles produced by individual craftspeople. That is, the four people who were selling their own needles at 50 cents apiece now have to compete with a factory selling needles for 40 cents apiece, so they will have to lower their prices to 40 cents and get only $80 a day, or work for the factory for $85 a day, where previously they were able to sell their own needles for $100 a day. The irony is that the factory owner’s profits are lower than they would be if he continued to sell needles for 50 cents and paid the employees $110 a day, but because the free market is competitive, this would leave a lot of room for a competitor to come in and sell needles at lower prices. In any of these scenarios, however, the factory owner comes out better than all of the workers, which is the point.))
  4. Capital Accumulation: Not only does capital produce profits, it also accumulates wealth. Most of the things money can buy in the world, from cars to computers to carrots, are depreciating assets. They decay over time or are used up, resulting in a destruction of wealth. But there are some assets, such as land, factories, and brand names, that can become more valuable over time. People who own these things get wealthier without having to work (appreciation),((It wouldn’t be accurate to say that they don’t do any work, but it is accurate to say that the work they do isn’t what makes them wealthy. The capital is what makes them wealthy. Many wealthy people hire an investment advisor to do the work for them and can continue to accumulate wealth while doing no work at all.)) while people who work and buy things will have to work and buy more things because their things keep getting used up (depreciation). Most people have a little bit of both appreciation and depreciation: you might have a retirement account that holds stocks that appreciate over time, but your clothes depreciate as they wear out and you have to buy new ones. The greater the proportion of appreciating assets you have, the more your wealth accumulates. When defining the valuation of a human being, there are two tiers: People who are valued based on the work they can do, and people who are valued based on the capital they control. A truck driver for McLane Company is valued based on her labor; Warren Buffett, the CEO of McLane’s controlling company Berkshire Hathaway, is valued based on his assets.
  5. Capital Markets: Once separate pieces of capital are pulled together into a mode of ownership, such as a corporation, you can break up that ownership into pieces and sell them to other people. And because everything can be assigned a value, and because selling it on a market in a competitive environment results in an actual price, you can do this with anything. (That’s what got the United States economy into trouble in 2008: lenders taking a bunch of mortgages, packaging them together and selling them, then taking pieces of those packages, packaging them together, and selling them, then hedging some of those against other packages… etc.)
  6. Fluidity: The free market isn’t just for products and capital. Unlike feudalism, people can easily move between different employers under capitalism, even without having to pick up and move to another part of the world. The flip side of this is the degradation of community: since people need to be able to move around easily, your bonds with your neighbors are weaker. Everyone is responsible for her own fate, and many more of our interactions are transactional: instead of confiding in your local priest or preacher, or talking things through with your neighbors, you might pay a therapist or life coach to listen to your problems.((This is what sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies called “Gesellschaft,” which represents a broad and anonymous society, in opposition to “Gemeinschaft,” which represents a specific and familiar community.))

As I’ve described in a previous post, capitalism effectively decoupled and abstracted political and economic realities as they existed under feudalism. Where feudalism required wealthy people to own land, capitalism enabled wealthy people to maintain and grow their wealth independent of land.((This was an important transition with the ending of the Malthusian era–where the total wealth available to a population essentially came down to the ability to produce food. Once we invented better ways to produce food, wealth became disassociated from land.)) This also means violence takes on a different form under capitalism, and warfare and destruction is less direct.

Why capitalism?

Capitalism is underpinned by a belief in the effectiveness of rational (or enlightened) self-interest: that people make the best decisions for their own needs with the information they have available to them.((That people consistently act against their own rational self-interest does not dissuade believers in capitalism. Usually there is a rationalizing belief that irrational actors get edged out of the market, that poor people are either lazy or need to educate themselves, that the “self-interest” part can be irrational but a person will still act rationally to get it, etc.)) The result is the “invisible hand” of the marketplace moving to fulfill the needs people are ready to pay for: if all of a sudden everybody wants to eat radishes, the price for radishes will go up and more people will grow radishes because they’ll get a better price for them. (In later posts we’ll look at how this breaks down, especially in the age of the Internet.)

Capitalism was originally developed in opposition to the idea of a central regime–usually a monarchy–attempting to make the best determinations about how resources should be used. Under feudalism, a monarchy might grant a certain portion of land to a knight, who would be the caretaker of that land and all the commerce that was conducted on it. As opposed to the visible hand of a ruler distributing resources under a feudal economy, capitalism depended on an “invisible hand” distributing resources based on how much people would pay for a product or service.

It’s helpful to see capitalism as the product of its particular time:((To put capitalism into perspective next to similar ideas in physics, capitalism is like Newtonian physics. We still use Newtonian physics for some purposes, but imagine if technologies refused to take relativity or quantum mechanics into account–we wouldn’t have inventions like GPS or even modern computers.) the Age of Enlightenment, when philosophers and lawmakers alike saw education and rationality as a way of elevating humanity((Enlightenment rationality has a long and problematic history with the concept of race, in which white Europeans were thought to carry the “white man’s burden” of rationality into the rest of the world and elevate all other races of humanity beyond what they would be capable of achieving without the salvation of white rationalism and scientific progress. This belief has influenced modern politics among both conservatives and liberals, long after it became unfashionable to be explicitly and unapologetically racist.)) out of conflict, poverty, and all our other problems. If most men((Enlightenment rationality also has a long and problematic history with sexism, in which for a long time only men were believed to be capable of rationality, and even today women are frequently dismissed as emotional or irrational. On the other hand, feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft made appeals to rationality as a way of bolstering their arguments. Even so, it’s been argued that rationalism was the language of the time and not a prerequisite for the success of feminism.)) became educated and rational, the thinking was, they would be able to lead less rational men and women toward a collective social ideal.

Capitalism was successful in its time due to the invention of new technologies and methods of organizing. Today, the invention of new technologies and methods of organizing are among the reasons we need to develop new economic models and methods that leave capitalism behind.

What about socialism?

There’s a lot of discussion about socialism in the political arena these days. To some people it’s a scary word. Others embrace it whole-heartedly. But what is it?

Socialism is a version of capitalism where the government owns a stake in some industries. Depending on how you define “industry,” most economies are socialist to greater or lesser degrees. For example, in the United States, the government owns most of the military industry and the education industry, as well as a significant stake in the amusement and tourism industry in the form of parks, museums, and monuments, and a pretty big piece of the transportation industry in terms of roads, bridges, waterways, and airports. This isn’t the degree to which the United Kingdom is socialist, where the government owns some television and radio broadcasting channels and the lion’s share of the medical industry, but the United States government owns a pretty large portion of certain industries and so can be called a socialist government already. So the discussion isn’t about whether to be socialist, but about which industries benefit from government involvement and to what degree.

To be clear, I intend to look at issues with capitalism itself, which means the solution may not be socialist in nature. It might require a re-thinking of the assumptions of capitalism, which would necessarily challenge socialism as well.

What about communism?

In my view, communism is also a modification of capitalism. The means of production are held in common by the people, but otherwise it’s intended to work more or less the same way.

In its purest form, communism requires the means of production to be owned by a democratic government and made available to the people based on who will make the best use of it. For example, if one person wants a piece of land to build a farm and another person wants to build a factory on it, there would be a rational, unbiased way of determining whether the factory is needed, whether it’s a good location for a factory, whether the soil and rain conditions are good for farming, etc., in order to decide which person should use that piece of land. In practice, centralized decision-making is the sort of outrageous idea that could only be conceived in an early Industrial Age mindset, when it seemed like rationality would take over the world and everything would become quantifiable.

In the capitalist ideal, some profits flow to workers by way of increased wages, while the rest flow to the owners by way of capital accumulation (whether or not that actually works is another question). In the communist model, the state takes the place of the owner. It’s a shortcut to the dark capitalist utopia envisioned by Arthur Jensen in the movie Network: “one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

The real flaw in communism is not that it kills worker motivation but that having a centralized decision-making process about who gets to use assets is extremely prone to corruption and the short-sightedness of the central decision-makers.((Even if it is, in principle, controlled by all the people. In principle, the United States government executes the will of the people, and yet somehow only 17% of people as of the latest Gallup poll approve of Congress. That number hasn’t been above 50 percent since 2003. It’s hard to imagine people would be happier with Congress if it were directly in charge of all the jobs, resources, and products in the country.)) Put the no-nonsense Jack Welch in charge and you might stifle innovation for a decade, put the visionary Steve Jobs in charge and you will get a tremendous amount of innovation that fits his particular vision but nothing outside of that. Even the perfect candidate would be limited by human decision-making, and let’s be honest when assessing our human tendencies toward rationalizing corruption.

What’s wrong with capitalism?

It’s been my conviction for the past several years that we are seeing a shift that heralds the end of capitalism as a ruling ideology in our world. This isn’t because we’re getting smarter–it’s because capitalism, and its variations including socialism and communism, fail to address our economic realities.

Some people think this is a bold claim, some people think it’s ridiculous, some people might even think it’s anti-American. But to me it’s about as obvious as pointing out that winter is coming: it’s getting colder, the leaves are falling, we all know where that leads. And if capitalism is ending, we’d better get ready to replace it with something.

I don’t have the solution for what replaces capitalism. But this is a conversation I’m ready to have with other humans who want to see a world in which ordinary people can produce meaning and improve our collective quality of life.

What follows will be a series of posts pointing out what I see as some of the key strengths and weaknesses of capitalism, so that we can begin to talk about how we might do better in the future.

If I left anything important out of my definition of capitalism here, please feel free to comment below. Keep the comments on this post to a discussion of the definition here–there are going to be a lot of posts in this series and there will be plenty of time for criticism and theorizing. It will be helpful to have a solid working definition to start.

Talk to you soon, fellow humans.

My next journey

I’m revisiting my blog today because I’m about to embark on a new journey, and I have some things to work out before I do. I’m a synthesizer of information who is constantly processing inputs, and occasionally I need a little space to lay things out in front of me. The ideas can change but they’re unlikely to be placed back neatly into the socially accepted boxes.

This fall I will begin a year-long Master of Arts in Social Science (MAPSS) program at the University of Chicago.

I’ve always been more a problem solver than a true scientist. I’m detail-oriented enough to see when the small picture contradicts the big one, but it’s always been difficult to focus on a very specific, quantifiable problem and eliminate all the variables and spend months or years answering that narrow question. My tendency is to spend maybe a few days figuring out a piece of the puzzle, or leaving a specific question alone and coming back to it over time until I can figure out how it fits the facts, until I’ve got something that looks like a full picture. So it will be interesting to put myself in an environment with not just the literature of the social sciences, but the scrutiny of the scientific method.

My overall goal is the same as it’s been: a more human future, one that expects us to be who we are and brings out the best in us. It’s idealistic, something that will be radical probably forever because it struggles against power. But any goal that is less idealistic simply accepts suffering and destruction as a by-product with certain levels of tolerance. There’s something useful in setting a standard that shows where we can continue to reduce suffering and destruction.

I hope by the end of this program to have a framework for mediating a conversation about our more human future–maybe what comes after this present society collapses, or maybe something we can achieve without a great collapse. Whatever it is, it will need to free us from the toxic influence of power structures such as racism and sexism, reunite us with our neighbors, and bind us together in ways that allow us to operate with intent instead of by isolated, impulsive decisions.

The ideas may sound good in theory, but in practice they run up against everything in American culture that has power. So it will partly be up to us to convince the powerful that power itself is corrosive, toxic, and ultimately deadly.

We live in a time where the conversation is turning. The public consciousness is catching up to our changing reality, starting to give it a language so that we can speak about what is changing and who we want to be. The Movement for Black Lives, #MeToo, and similar efforts are amplifying voices and holding the mirror up to our current power structures, asking us to throw off our chains–chains so old that no one can honestly remember where they came from or what they are for, and so new reasons are made up and new rules are tacked on and we never manage to free ourselves from them. It’s long past time to correct the sins of our fathers, take off these chains and meet one another as fellow human beings once again.

With these thoughts in mind, I’m going to begin laying out many of the things I’ve been mulling over for so long, beginning with a topic that has become the punching bag of modern political discourse: capitalism.

Talk to you soon, fellow humans.

There Are No “Good People”

A lot of people are surprised when they discover that I don’t believe in “bad people.” I don’t believe there is such a thing as an irredeemable, fundamentally broken individual who just needs to exit the human race as quickly as possible.

“Not even Hitler?” the hypothetical objector exclaims, appealing to Godwin’s Law right out of the gate.

“No, hypothetical person,” I reply. “Not even Hitler.”

I’m raising this point in the midst of sexual assault scandals rocking everyone’s world as if we should be surprised that a culture that scarcely thirty years ago didn’t widely recognize sexual harassment, that to this day continues to ask victims of rape what they were wearing and whether they should have gone into the room with him, conditions its men to respect their own sexual urges over the self-sovereignty and safety of others.

“But I’m a good man,” cries Louis C.K., Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Al Franken, George Takei, or whatever respected man is currently under discussion as having forced himself sexually against others.

Well that right there is your problem. The flip side of the notion that “bad people” don’t exist is that “good people” don’t exist either. There are just “people,” with all the mess of bias, emotions, desires, and other irrationalities.

I don’t mean to excuse any of the horrible things done by these or any other people. But whenever I give an apology with the claim, “I’m a good person”–or anytime I defend someone saying, “He’s a good person”–I’m implying there are “bad people” out there who are the ones who do these things, and the bad thing I did isn’t part of who I am. But clearly it is part of who I am. Because I’m the person who did it.

Of course, there are also people who think they’re the “bad people.” These people go home and love their spouses, children, or pets with complete selflessness. They give to poor people or help others avoid the mistakes they themselves made, often with the reasoning that “just because I’m a bad person doesn’t mean everybody else has to suffer.”

In a way, both these narratives exist because they save us energy. If I’m a “good person,” I don’t have to stop and think about what I’m doing, because by virtue of “being good,” I won’t ever do anything bad on purpose. If I’m a “bad person,” I don’t have to stop and think about what I’m doing either, because even if I try to do something good it will inevitably be corrupted by my “bad” nature.

The most terrible people in the world have almost always been “good people” by their own reckonings. Tyrants, slave traders, and genocidal maniacs have all reasoned that because they were essentially “good,” the actions they were taking must be justified.

It’s this kind of “goodness” that prevents us from making progress against racism, sexism, classism, and all the other dysfunctional “-isms” that plague our culture and keep crushing human lives under their weight. Your mom spouts vitriol about the Vietnamese family who moved in next door, but she’s a good person. Your buddy touches women inappropriately all the time but hey, he’s a good guy. Your boss would rather vacation in ever more remote tropical islands than lift a finger to help people less fortunate, but he’s always nice to you at work, so he’s a good person too.

Do you consider yourself a “good person?” If so, I recommend seeking treatment immediately before the condition worsens. Talk to a therapist or religious leader, and if they in any way imply it’s a simple thing to do, get a second, third, or fourth opinion as needed. Read Thich Nhat Hanh or Thomas Merton, follow the fantastic On Being podcast and blog, look in whatever texts you consider sacred for the words that are spoken to you and not the words that are spoken to others.

Give up being a “good person” or a “bad person” and work on becoming “good at being a person”–someone who has learned to accept his irrationalities and idiosyncrasies and limitations, who always acts with empathy, who considers the people affected by his actions before taking action. To quote Kendrick Lamar, “Be humble.”

I struggle to this day with the belief that I’m a good person. Sometimes I have to catch myself when I think that the things I believe or the lifestyle I embody mean that I’m a good person, incapable of doing wrong because it’s simply not in my nature. There are also times when I’ve been shaken to my core to think that I not be a good person–that I’m not capable of doing anything right, that I’m useless as a human being. It took me years of growth and practice to recognize and ingrain in myself that I was neither good nor bad. And as I began to leave behind rightness and wrongness (to allude to the Islamic mystic Rumi’s famous poem), I also began to find I was calmer, more focused, more energized by the change I could help to create in the world and less burdened by self-doubt.

This isn’t a quick process–it means dedicating yourself to learning how to be human the way you might dedicate yourself to learning guitar or glass blowing; and it means you have to keep practicing instead of depending on your inherent “goodness.” But it’s the one skill literally everyone needs. It’s the one skill that matters most to our collective future. And you can’t be an effective leader of your home, your business, or your country without it.

If you’re looking for help with this, please post in the comments below and I’ll try to provide some more resources.

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?

Be What You Intend to Be

Much of what goes on in a traditional organization is unintentional. That is to say, it isn’t an action that someone has decided to take in order to contribute to the well-being of that organization and its stakeholders. It’s operating on default.

Ironically, unintentional behavior can often be the result of trying to clamp down on unintentional behavior. On the other hand, it can just as easily be the result of leaving people isolated and expecting them to do their best work without any assistance or support.

The road to a more intentional organization is one described ideologically by business greats from Warren Buffett to Richard Branson. Here is the idea as verbalized by Steve Jobs:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this idea is counter to the operation of a traditional organization. Traditionally, decisions get made and orders pushed down the chain of command; results come back up and get pieced into something like the final result that the person at the top of the chain wanted.

Counter-intuitively, the result of the traditional approach is that much of what happens in the organization is unintentional. People who wait for orders don’t make the best use of their own time; and the people above them, who don’t have the perspective of each individual’s point of view, don’t make the best use of their time either. People fulfill their immediate expectations without a view of what’s good for the whole. What’s more, managers often don’t communicate all their expectations, and the results reflect the holes in each subordinate’s understanding of the tasks assigned to him.

Becoming intentional means, at least in part, understanding myself, acknowledging and accepting what I am, and developing upon my strengths. As in the Cherokee proverb of the two wolves, I become better by feeding what is good within me. It’s not a choice I make when I’m faced with a hard question, it’s a choice I make by the way I condition myself to face the hundreds of little choices throughout the day.

The same is true of an organization: I have to feed what is best in my organization and what is best in the individuals within it.

This is one reason organizations that focus on facilitation can be much more effective than traditional organizations. Instead of “managing” in the traditional sense, leaders help people to do and become their best, guiding their individual work toward the ultimate good of the organization as a whole and helping to connect it to the work of others.

What this means for a leader is that I am first of all responsible to my people rather than for them. (Responsibility for my people is still important, though it’s mostly externally-facing: followers want leaders to have their backs.)

Whereas a traditional organization is merely, as Emerson put it, “the lengthened shadow of one man,” an organization of facilitation is an attempt to leverage the power of community toward a common goal. That makes the intent of each individual important to the whole. Each level is intentional about its own goals and behaviors, and each subsequent level is there to help the previous level attain its goals and bind efforts together.

Here are a few risk factors for unintended behavior, and what you can do about them:

  • Fear. When people are afraid of something, they tend to either destroy it or hide it. I have never seen either of these behaviors yield positive results in an organization. If the people working with you act fearfully, address it head-on. Learn what they are afraid of. Dig into the root cause, too–few people are afraid of disappointing a customer so much as they’re afraid of what might happen to them. If you start to notice a lot of people having similar problems, you have a systemic fear on your hands–usually one that has to do with trust within the organization–that requires a change.
  • Inconsistent culture. People are more willing to take personal risks if they feel anchored and supported. That has partly to do with knowing that the people around them have their back–even people who may be on a different team, or come from a very different background. Your hiring practices and cultural guidelines need to be spelled out so that the people you hire are people you’d choose to weather a crisis, not just people who would have fun together at happy hour. More than that, everyone in your organization needs to be telling the same story and believe in the same destiny.
  • Too much process. Process can be a good thing if done correctly–if the process represents a best practice, serves the people, and is capable of evolving. But if you need a process to mitigate risk, that means you already have unintended behaviors–and adding a process could make the issue worse, as people attempt to short-cut or circumvent the process in order to get their work done. (Ask yourself: Is the process an invention or a control?) Pare down or eliminate any processes that get in the way of doing good work, and instead focus on gaining buy-in from your ostensibly reliable (you did hire them, right?) employees as to how to avoid putting your community at unnecessary risk.
  • Over-management. If responsibility for my efforts always goes up to my manager, my natural human response is to fight against that control mechanism. I might give up on doing anything that isn’t assigned to me, I might deliberately procrastinate or slack off, or I might start looking for other jobs. (The top cause of burnout isn’t over-working, it’s lacking control over or engagement with your work.)1 A quote from a study in the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations: “Burnout can be minimized/avoided if individuals develop a high level of involvement in their jobs and they are able to identify themselves psychologically with their jobs.” Adding controls and oversight to prevent me from doing anything but the work I’m supposed to be doing will provoke a desire to rebel against them. Try cutting out levels of management and finding ways to prevent micromanagement, or better yet, train your “hierarchy” to be a facilitating structure instead of a managing structure. If you have good people, you won’t need to control them; and if you stop controlling them, you’ll find out pretty quickly who’s good and who isn’t.

The only way you’re going to get more than a handful of people to be fully engaged in accomplishing a goal is to get them to buy into that goal and work toward it on their own motivation. In other words, hire good people and let them tell you what to do. Think of it this way: As long as I hold the power to fire my leader, what do I lose by being a servant?

What reservations do you have about making this kind of change? Did I miss something? I’m looking forward to getting your reactions in the comments.


1  A quote from a study in the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations: “Burnout can be minimized/avoided if individuals develop a high level of involvement in their jobs and they are able to identify themselves psychologically with their jobs.”

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?

Hiring for a Unique Culture

Culture is an emergent phenomenon. It exists between the people who make up that particular culture, and evolves based on their interactions–the mythology, folk knowledge, and traditional practices they create and pass between themselves. If you hire based on skill alone, your internal culture will look pretty much like the rest of your industry, because it will be populated with the same kinds of people.

Unlike the Industrial Age, hiring today isn’t picking up a part to put into an already-designed machine to make the machine run. Hiring into an emergent environment only happens when the candidate fits both the current culture and the future culture. Emergent strategy depends on the people within the organization working with and off of one another to yield unplanned results.

Here are a few tweaks to your hiring practices that may yield better results:

  1. Don’t appeal to everybody. Many organizations just want to be liked by everyone. They want to be the place where any individual out there would love to work. Don’t do that. Your organization is unique, and you want people who fit that collective vision and identity. Netflix asserts very clearly that its culture isn’t for everyone, but that is precisely what makes its culture all the more appealing to those who do fit. Figure out now why people wouldn’t want to work in your organization, and you’re on the way to creating a unique and powerful culture.
  2. Fill blind spots, not roles. Roles are a collection of responsibilities and skills that fit a pretty standard definition. Blind spots require a more complete understanding of your team and organization. Simply put, a blind spot is something you need that you don’t have, at the broadest definition that is required (e.g., do you really need someone with three years of Trello experience or do you just need someone who’s comfortable with agile project management?). A blind spot may be a specific competency, like a specific piece of technology, or it may be a tweak to the chemistry of the current team–for example, a more outgoing individual that will facilitate communication between the more introverted members of a remote team. It strips away the expectations that come with hiring someone into a particular role, allowing the new hire to integrate more organically with what’s already going on in your team for the first few months until they have a rhythm going.
  3. Advertise your vision, not your requirements. Anyone who isn’t excited by your specific vision doesn’t belong to your culture. And don’t just advertise the vision of your company. If possible, state succinctly but with enthusiasm what your vision is for the team and even for the specific role. A less-skilled candidate who is energized by the collective vision will be twice as valuable as a more skilled candidate who just wants a new job. And bear in mind that a long list of qualifications belies a search for an interchangeable part. If you want your candidates to get excited about a position, pare it down to your vision and the key blind spots you’re trying to fill. Leave room for the candidate to surprise you.
  4. Interview thoroughly. The hiring process I’ve seen averages two interviews. Google suggests no more than five–and then actually goes on to interview candidates five times, looking for factors including raw skill, problem solving ability, and cultural fit. In an adaptive organization, you’re going to want to take advantage of four or five interviews in order to thoroughly vet the skills, the personality, and the chemistry with the current environment.
  5. Weigh potential. Today the pace of change in technology and the economy means being able to learn what’s needed for the future is more important than having what’s needed in the present. Your people will not only need to adapt as things change, but they will need to create change themselves. And then they will need to live into that change. If the candidate doesn’t have what’s needed to adapt to whatever his role will be in three years, he may not be the best fit.
  6. When in doubt, leave them out. Don’t hire a candidate unless they leave you no other choice–by which I mean, she is such an excellent fit for your organization that you couldn’t bear to let her take another job. Turn away business before hiring someone who doesn’t add to your culture. Adaptive organizations thrive based on the number and quality of connections between employees. Hiring someone who isn’t going to improve your internal network is poison to your long-term goals.
  7. Enlist your recruit’s help. Zappos offers a $2,000 bonus for new hires to quit. The idea is that a new hire will take the money if they don’t feel that they are a good fit for the culture or they don’t believe in the long-term potential of working with the company. In the long run, the occasional $2,000 quitting bonus saves the company a lot of money on people that might otherwise be a drag on the culture. A new-hire quitting bonus might not work for you, but you should still look for ways you can work with a new hire to ensure he’s the right person, and part ways amicably if he’s not.

Filling your organization with effective people who fit with the people around them and are excited about a common vision is the basis of any good culture, not just in an adaptive organization. But because of the importance of emergence in adaptive organizations, getting the mix of people right for your culture is a crucial requirement for success.

EDIT: Reader Brian Gorman offers two additional points to consider: “Having spent more than four decades living in the world of organizational change, I would add two more to his list. 1. Hire for the culture that you want, not the culture that you have. 2. Hire for resilience; you need people who can learn new skills, and shift their mindsets, as your organization continues to change.” I would add a caveat to the first that anyone you hire needs to be able to work in the culture you have today, or she’ll be out the door as soon as she can–which makes finding adaptable people all the more important during a period of change.

Which of these points do you find is most important or illuminating? Are there any important points about hiring for culture that I’ve missed? Do you disagree with my points? I look forward to discussing it with you in the comments.

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.