The Living Organization

November 19, 2018

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I should begin this with a brief explanation: I read a book recently called “Design in Nature” by Adrian Bejan. It’s a physics book – he’s a thermodynamics guy. I don’t know much about physics, but one of the things that intrigued me about this book, was that it started with a definition of what life is from a pure physics perspective. That beginning, starting from first principles, was enough to get me thinking. I started to wonder, what would it be like to start with a definition of organizational life? Would that uncover some interesting insights into how organizations work? So I took Adrian’s definition of life and I hacked it a bit to work for organizations. Something like this:

For an organization to live, its structure must evolve so that it provides easier access to the work/ideas that flow through it.
-Derived from Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Law, Design in Nature [1]

Let’s take that statement and break it down step by step. First, all organizations are living systems. Living elements, namely people, make up organizations and they have some sort of discernible life-cycle of birth, life, and death [2]. For example, most organizations have some sort of entrepreneurial origins or birth. Some never get any further than that. They never find a foothold in the business ecosystem and as a result, they never reach a viable, sustainable state. A lucky few find their way to reach a profitable niche. These businesses are able to form a stable enterprise that capitalizes on this success. These businesses often optimize for their domain, transforming from groping for opportunity to maximizing the profit they can make from that opportunity. In essence, they evolve to maximize the benefit they receive from the success they have found. However, markets, like any living ecosystem, are subject to change and disruption. As these changes take place, the profit that once made the company thrive may disappear. At this point, to survive, the organization needs to evolve again. It needs to find a new niche in its ecosystem where it can thrive. Otherwise, the only alternative is death.

So, every organization is a living system that is changing or evolving to survive within an ecosystem [3]. It follows that the organizations that are fastest to evolve are most likely the organizations that survive in any ecosystem that is subject to ongoing change and disruption. All living systems require the capacity to change, potentially very rapidly, in the face of new threats. If we change too slowly, we can’t keep up with disruptions in our environment and subsequently die. So the advantage goes to the swift when it comes to change.

This brings us to the third and final attribute of living systems: flow [4]. The thing that all living systems have in common is flow. It is the flow of water, or blood, or even information. In its most abstract sense, flow is the fundamental characteristic of any living system. Systems with better flow change faster than systems with poorer flow. So the ability to change or evolve is directly dependent on the efficiency of the organization’s flow.

So if organizations are living systems, and living systems have flow, and the system that evolves to the best flow wins, how we structure our organizations to optimize flow is the most important question we can ask.

Notes:

[1]”For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.” Adrian Bejan, Design in Nature
[2]Koshland, Jr., Daniel E. (22 March 2002). “The Seven Pillars of Life”. Science. 295 (5563): 2215–16. doi:10.1126/science.1068489. PMID 11910092. Archived from the original on 28 February 2009. Retrieved 25 May 2009.
[3]Futuyma, Douglas J.; Kirkpatrick, Mark (2017). “Mutation and variation”. Evolution (Fourth ed.). Sunderland, Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc. pp. 79–102. ISBN 160-5-35605-0.
[4]Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-016253-5.


XP2011 – Taking Silo Busting to Madrid

May 4, 2011

Lourdes Vidueira and I have taken the “Silo Busting” presentation that I’ve been doing for about the last two years and we have rather dramatically expanded it into a full 4 hour tutorial session for XP2011. A tremendous amount of research has gone into building this material and I have to say that I’m very excited with what we have put together. Managing conflicts between organizational silos is the very definition of a wicked problem that is rife with complexity (and usually comes with a healthy dollop of chaos on top). These sorts of problems require a multi-disciplinary approach in order to effectively deal with them. Some of those disciplines include:

  • Sociology (in-group & out-group formation)
  • Psychology (hierarchies, biases & discrimination, personality, group formation)
  • Conflict management (conflict models, personality)
  • Leadership (personality, hierarchy, vision)
  • Organizational Development (vision, organizational structure)

And I’m sure there are even more. Many of these domains overlap and reinforce the other. Like I’ve mentioned, I’m pretty tickled with what we have come up with and I’m looking forward to sharing it with a group of really motivated people. Of course the setting for the conference, Madrid, is going to be fabulous. It looks like there are a lot of great sessions in the program and I will be sure to keep folks posted on the stuff that I attend.

If you are going to be attending, make sure to check out the Silo Busting tutorial on Friday – We’re hoping to make it one of the highlights of the conference!


Things That Divide Us

January 2, 2011

Organizational silos are the source of the most pernicious dysfunctions you can find within any company. What is a silo? Silos are the walls or barriers that we erect in order to separate “us” from “them.”

We are the ultimate corporate reductionists. We divide everyone in the organization down into the most specialized roles that we can tolerate and then we struggle to produce a product using the result. That division ends up reflected in everything that we do, from the products that we produce to the way that we hire new people to help us.

We break things down in so many ways that it boggles the imagination. For example:

  1. Management Responsibility: Executives, Managers, Workers
  2. Roles in the Product Development Process: Sales, Marketing, Development, Architecture, Project Management, QA, Operations, Customer Service
  3. Parts of the Application: UI, Middleware, DB
  4. Locations: Headquarters, satellite offices, international
  5. Languages: C++, Java, Ruby, English, French
  6. Processes: RUP, Agile, Lean

This is just a small sampling of some of the ways in which we divide ourselves within organizations. These divisions serve to isolate people in the organization within hyper-specialized roles. Ostensibly, we do this in order to help people succeed. The Justification might be that no one can be equally good at everything. Therefore, we compartmentalize our lives and those around us in order to filter out the extraneous noise. We try to create a space for focus and success. Ultimately, it is all an effort to help us manage the scope of the learning that needs to take place. All of these goals are necessary and helpful and they are things that come with a price.

Some of the costs of all of this division and compartmentalization are:

  1. Lost knowledge of upstream and downstream processes
  2. Lacking a holistic understanding of the product
  3. A narrow view of the people involved in product development
  4. Often little or no knowledge of the business domain itself

Of course, it does not have to be this way. You can deliver a product successfully without compartmentalizing everyone and everything in an organization within an inch of its life. It requires a different mindset. One needs inter-disciplinary thinking that considers different skills and tries to synthesize a whole rather than divide. This requires a mindset that favors skill over roles, knowledge over assignment.

This focus needs to extend through the entire human dimension: from the self, to the team, and all the way through the organization. In terms of the self, we need to be well-rounded product developers: people who appreciate the logic, art, science, and beauty of our craft and our product. As teams, we need to have the proper balance of skills, from development, QA, the customer, and delivery. Moreover, as an organization, we need to have the people in place to help support the teams and the people on the teams to develop themselves and deliver the best products.

Once we can do that, once we can see ourselves as more than cogs in a machine, once we can collaborate to craft beautiful things, and once the organization can appreciate the beauty of not only the products, but the people who create them, then we can move away from these silos that handicap our organizations now.