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Bruce Holland

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Every so often, a theory comes out of the physical sciences, which overthrows older notions about how the world works."

In the 1400's it was the understanding that the world was not flat and that we were not the centre of the universe. This led to the Renaissance and a period of unparalleled art and discovery.

In the 1600's Newton showed us that the world moved according to simple and predict-able rules, almost like clock-work. This led to the industrial age and unparalleled economic growth.

In the early 1900's Einstein turned things upside down again by proving that matter and energy are just different forms of the same force. This led to nuclear power and the understanding that, because people are very highly condensed energy fields, organisational energy and culture are important.

Now science is turning the world on its head again. This time it's the science of Complexity (complexity from simplicity ... how simple 'bodies' self-organise to form much larger more 'complex' organisations).

In the last few years a group of world-class scientists working at the Institute of Santa Fe in New Mexico have discovered that we live in a world, which is self-organising. Whether they looked at bees forming a hive, or birds flocking, or users on the Internet, or firms in an economy, it be-came clear that self-organisation is a fundamental law of nature. Self-organisation is not a lucky accident, it happens because it must happen.

The discussion on complexity can get quite technical but the principles are simple. Recently, working at Santa Fe, Craig Reynolds tried to replicate the way fish swim together in amazingly complex patterns. First, Reynolds tried to replicate the behavior-using top down control. Unfortunately, although he used super computers, this programme became impossibly complicated beyond about 10 'fish' because the number relationships became overwhelming. In short this top down approach was a dismal failure.

Next, Reynolds programmed three simple rules into each 'fish' and when he ran the programme the 'fish' swam and circled and performed the most amazing patterns, very much like the fish we'd see if we looked down from a wharf.

The three rules which he programmed into each 'fish' were:

  1. Keep moving,
  2. Stay close to your neighbor, and
  3. Don't bump into any-thing.

Talk about complexity from simplicity!

The more I think about these three rules the more interesting I find them.

Imagine an organisation where everyone lived by these rules (putting them into business language):

  1. Keep learning and experimenting, if it's in line with the vision ... Do it,
  2. Build relationships, understanding and work together,
  3. Work to each others strengths.

Complexity from simplicity Simple rules rule.

The interesting thing is that scientists are now finding that all complex systems are based on a few simple rules built in at the local level. And these rules work to produce the most amazingly complex behavior at a global level.

For example the rules for bees in a hive appear to be:

  1. When you find honey release scent,
  2. Follow the scent!!

The rules for taxis in New York are:

  1. Stop for anything that waves,
  2. Go where it says.

Imagine the chaos if all the taxis in New York were organised like we organise our factories with each taxi connected to, and dispatched by the M.R.P. system.

In my experience complexity doesn't go down well in most corporate offices. After all it is not world we've been trained for.

However the growing number of success stories can no longer be ignored. For example at General Motors Trucks (Fort Wayne, Indiana), instead of the normal practice (a centralised controller coordinating the routing and use of different colours), they are using a system based on complexity to paint trucks. Each of the 10 paint booths is programmed with two simple rules:

  1. Paint as many trucks as possible, and
  2. Use as little paint as possible.

With-out any regard for what any other booth is doing, or what is happening anywhere else in the plant, each booth makes an electronic 'bid' for each truck, and the job always goes to the lowest bidder. If the line in front of the booth is long it bids zero. If it has capacity it bids according to how much capacity. The bids are compared and the vehicle goes to the lowest bidder. Inside each booth a similar bidding process determines which spray gun is chosen. The result is a saving of $US 1.5 per year over the standard approach.

So what should managers do in a world ruled by complexity? Instead of controlling in the traditional way (which complexity says is impossible to achieve anyway), a different kind of control is needed ... one which, with confidence in patterns, influences without force. Ease off the Rule Book, increase empowerment, reduce levels, allow people to take ownership, focus on values and principles, spend time building relationships rather than re-organising.

I am the co-founder of the Virtual Group Business Consultants. This is New Zealand's first virtual company without walls, hierarchy or bosses. Our 20 business consultants are business people who equally own the company. Virtual Group itself is a model of new ways of working. We have no bosses, no employees, no job descriptions, no corporate office .... just lots of energy, quality systems and strong relation-ships of trust. We have moved probably far further than most organisations would want to move but in doing so we have pushed the boundaries on self-organisation, self-management and self owner-ship, teamwork and creativity. In the process we have found what works and what does not work.

So does self-organisation in business work?

After several years of experimenting we have found the answer is: yes and no.

We have found that with quite different support systems some aspects of the business can be completely self-organised and others need to be strongly controlled. Knowing which is which is a major part of our intellectual capital. More and more people are coming to talk to us about it.

Best wishes

Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZ's most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work
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