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Bruce Holland

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Organisations don't have to be tall, siloed structures like we have come to accept

The World is a great deal simpler than we think. This point is being made more and more often in recent books on science and physics. As Stephen Wolfram says in A New Kind Of Science: Quote, Whenever a phenomenon is encountered that seems complex it is taken almost for granted that the phenomenon must be the result of some underlying mechanism that is itself complex. But my discovery that simple programs can produce great complexity makes it clear that this is not in fact correct.

It seems that almost all complex systems are actually made up of very simple parts repeated over and over again.

If you think of ants, the complex structure that we see as a colony is actually many simple individuals self organising in to a bigger more complex system. The human body is one of the most complex systems known in the universe and yet it is basically a colony of simple individual cells self organising themselves into something infinitely stronger than any of the individual cells. Wellington is a complex system of individuals (like you and me) who self organise themselves into a community. The same comments could be made for countries, companies, teams, the internet, the economy and any other living system you can think of.

The Big Question Is How Do All These Systems Self Organise

When thinking about how these things self organise one is tempted to assume that the process must be very complicated whereas in actual fact it is ridiculously simple. In all cases it seems that the individuals self organise through simple interactions (feedback) between immediate neighbours. Group behaviour emerges that is distinct from the behaviour of any one of the individuals. Lets take ants, scientists have found that each ant simply follows two simple rules:

  1. When you find food leave a scent and
  2. Follow the scent

and as a result of this the group self organises into a colony capable of building amazingly sophisticated hills.

Fish that form schools swimming in enormously complex patterns like synchronised swimmers seem to follow three rules:

  1. Keep moving,
  2. Stay close to your neighbour,
  3. Don't bump into anything.

So far we have not discovered the rules that each of your cells followed to grow into you, but I'll bet that when we do they will be equally simple. Over the last ten years, mostly in Virtual Group Business Consultants, I have experimented with the rules each of us need to follow in our interaction with each other in business. I'm not sure we've got them exactly right but we are getting very close.

What are the lessons for business?

In each of these systems there is no central control or if it's present it has a very light hand. For example there is no CEO cell in your body that directs all the other cells to become you. There is no CEO ant that directs all the other ants to form a colony; the role of the queen appears to be limited to breeding. In Wellington the vast majority of actions are taken by individuals interacting with their neighbours; sure there is a City Council but central control is very limited and should ideally be restricted to leadership. In the internet the whole thing happens without any central control.

Yet when we come to business we do things we would never dream of doing in a society (unless it was the USSR). In business heavy-handed, top-down rules are the norm.

The underlying assumption is that people need to be managed, they can't be trusted. The first priority of most C.E.O.s is to control, not to lead. Why do we do this when the lessons above suggest that if each person follows a few really simple rules they do not need to be managed or controlled? In business why do we assume that things happen top-down when science tells us that the world is organised from bottom-up?

What are the risks of over-management?

Nearly all systems, and certainly all living systems, try to organise themselves into states of criticality, neither ordered or disordered but somewhere in the middle at a point scientists call the Edge of Chaos but I'd prefer to call the Edge of Order or the sweet spot. I call it the sweet spot because it is the point which all living systems need to achieve for growth and creativity.

Trying to control the system and drive it towards the sweet spot may intuitively seem to be the best way to get there but actually over-management produces a fundamentally unstable system. Ironically control and over-management make the system less stable. There are hundreds of examples where we should have learnt this lesson; think of the Moldoon era, USSR and many of the recent high profile corporate collapses, but we still seem to make the same mistake again and again.

Examples Of Successes

Some businesses are winning by following these simple rules. They include:

  1. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is entirely collaborative and self-organising and now rivals Britannica and other traditional encyclopedias
  2. Linux, the open source computer operating system that is built by contributors all over the world and is starting to rival Microsoft Windows in popularity
  3. Visa International, the bank card company, that is owned by dozens of banks and organised as a chaord;
  4. Semco, the company owned by Ricardo Semler, author of Maverick, who does not talk about these principles but manages according to them.

What can you do?

  1. The most important thing is to see the world as a series of systems, each inside the other like Russian dolls. Get the idea out of your head that your organisation is a machine, it's actually a System, a Living System. The next thing is to see the smaller systems that make up the System, see the similarities, see how it simplifies the understanding. Finally, see how your System is part of a bigger System (the ecosystem, the country etc.), think in terms of how your System fits to the ecosystem. It needs to fit to the ecosystem like a bean bag fits to the surface it is sitting on. For more on this, see my Snippet on 'BeanBag management'.

  2. It's important to understand that this sweet spot is a law of nature. You don't manage your way towards the sweet spot rather you need to do the opposite - remove restrictions and barriers and trust the system to emerge to the sweet spot. Whilst we don't need over-management we do need strong leadership because most people are afraid that an organisation with indirect controls is an organisation that is out of control.

  3. Break down walls and remove controls. Rather than walls and hard structure (factories, buildings, machines etc.), think in terms of openness and soft assembly - knowledge, P.A.L.s, consultants, outsourcing, etc. Rather than controls, think in terms of releasing energy and potential.

  4. Select good people, give them meaningful work, then value and trust them to make a difference.

  5. Decide on the two or three rules that would make your organisation great if every person lived them every hour of every day. Don't assume that because the rules are simple, getting everyone to follow them will also be simple. It won't be!

Give me a call on Phone +6421620456 or Skype Bruce.Holland.



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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