Pyramids and Dandelions: finding structures fit for the information age

Opinion

I’ve been thinking hard about what I do, how I do it and why. I’ve always found it tricky to explain the power of holding technology, culture and transformation in creative tension, but there’s insight in that combination.

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“Our research tells us that organizations must be willing to adapt their culture and organizational structures if they hope to generate the innovation required to sustain relevance in today’s marketplace. Failure to adapt has predictable results in an otherwise unpredictable world.”The Innovation Trends Report 2019

I’m lucky to have been introduced to technology at a young age, in particular coding. I’m older than I look, so this was long before the Raspberry Pi was a twinkle in its maker’s eye. I like to joke that Mozart started young too, but believe me when I say that I never expected it to turn into a career.

“So, what exactly is it you do?”

The question foxes me now more than ever. Usually, “I’m in IT” is enough to move the conversation along: nothing to see here. It’s a good question, but I don’t have the elevator-pitch answer I’d need to graciously accept the dance of get-to-know-you small-talk the asker is offering. It’s more of a late-night, after-hours debate, the kind that leaves you with a big smile and a warm heart.

I do technology — in all its forms. From creative, intentional design ideas to coaching and questioning industry orthodoxy to rolling up my sleeves and building systems. There’s nothing I love more than the luxury and privilege of getting stuck in, working shoulder to shoulder with good people, sculpting in that virtually invisible medium: code. I believe that those who do, can, and that’s why I’ve never stopped doing.

I love working in tech, and yet, this is only part of my picture. Like Adam without Eve (or Steve) something’s missing. There are deeper notes to this song.

Missing the mark

I do technology because I believe we’re living through an information revolution.

A colleague recently referred to me as a “developer”. I was stunned and wondered how such a fractional picture could have formed. There’s actually nothing incorrect about the statement. I develop. I also write, travel and enjoy a bottle of wine. These are all part of life’s rich tapestry, woven between the light and dark strands of my story.

It’s a part of me, but it’s like saying Amazon runs a website, or that Beyoncé is “that lassie who does a wee shoogle at the disco”.

Amazon is one of the most powerful and pervasive organisations on the planet, which happens to run a website. Beyoncé speaks powerfully to thousands of people around the world about what it means to be a woman, she also tends to dance while doing it.

Nailing it

We’re seeing the automation of information (code, robots and AI) releasing value on a scale last seen by the automation of physical processes in the industrial revolution. As manual farm labourers were largely replaced by tractors, so filing clerks have been largely replaced by databases.

Today’s tech entrepreneurs are the equivalent of the industrial revolution’s mechanisation entrepreneurs — the aspirational, admired and sometimes wealthy superstars who brought with them massive change and a bewildering array of moral implications for society.

I do technology because I believe we’re living through an information revolution.

Digital technology is the defining theme of the information age, but what it says about how we think, work and organise ourselves is deeper and more powerful. It expresses a change in the collective way we think and it’s going to be disruptive until we’re through the transformation.

For me, technology is a lens, a metaphor, a window in to human systems. I have a ringside seat, watching it unfold and listening to what those changes say about us, about the way we’re evolving. As art reflects the artist, so the technology we create and choose reflects our collective journey.

Technology is the means, not the end

The best way to describe my outlook on technology is that it’s not the show. Steam engines, railways, factories and machines were non-negotiable innovations. Absolute necessities for the industrial revolution yet, incredible as they were, they weren’t the point. The point was what could be done with them, and in a fraction of the time it would have taken before.

When it comes to Digital Transformation, technology is a given. It’s the fabric and firmament of the information age and any organisation that intends to survive will need to embrace it. There was a time we built houses out of wood, wattle and daub but you won’t find a surviving construction company whose leaders say “we don’t really do bricks”. If your leaders are saying “we don’t really do digital”, then ask not for whom the Digital bell tolls.

Change at a deeper level

I see genuine pain and friction in today’s organisations as we straddle the gap between the industrial and the information ages.

So let’s look at how changes expressed in technology are reflected in our organisations. I’m riffing here, so go with me.

In a manual, agrarian society, a collectivised village philosophy mirrored a collectivised village approach to work: many people working together to get the harvesting done, for example. The advent of mechanisation brought with it a new worldview of work and we see it firmly imprinted in the design of our organisations today.

A single operator could now control a large, complex machine, ensuring all the cogs and processes worked together to achieve the desired result: a prototype of command-and-control industrial management. This mindset continues to be applied today, but now we tend to do knowledge-work, not industrial labour. This mismatch has dire consequences for productivity, engagement and ultimately the health of individuals, families and society.

I see genuine pain and friction in today’s organisations as we straddle the gap between the industrial and the information ages.

The incompatibility of the underlying mindsets, the paradigms, is tearing at the fabric of the familiar: the ways of working that those near the top of our organisations have grown up feeling safe with. The industrial revolution upended agrarian ways of working and the information revolution is now upending industrial ways of working.

Like the industrial age, the information age expresses a new evolution in our way of thinking. The design of the Internet is a fascinating expression of the idea that “the centre cannot hold”. Beyond a certain level of complexity and interconnection, command-and-control simply will not scale. A single operator can only manage a machine of a certain size.

The only way to go further is to decentralise. The Internet is not only the largest system ever built by humanity, it also epitomises decentralisation, autonomy and, simultaneously, independence and interdependence — qualities antithetical to industrial management — yet it is also the most resilient and reliable system ever created. Decentralisation means parts can fail without bringing down the whole. These are qualities we absolutely want in the design of our organisations.

The pyramid: grinding slowness, mass inefficiency

A pyramid design can’t react and adapt quickly enough in a complex, fast-changing world.

In the early days of the pyramid world, say, in a textile mill, expertise sat at the top of the organisation. Situationally aware, close to customers, reacting to market and customer needs, orchestrating the enterprise and passing commands into the machine for execution. You basically hired peasants and beat them with sticks. As more of us moved to knowledge work, this pattern reversed. Most organisations now hire expertise at the front line and place employees rather than exec teams closest to customers.

But in our pyramid world, we see and experience the grinding slowness and mass inefficiencies of large top-down organisations. Individual enthusiasm and genuine goodwill at the front line get stifled, people feel they’re doing what they can in spite of, not because of, the support of the organisation. Leaders do their best to tune, manage and reorganise the machine in a effort to get it running smoothly, but we seem to have reached the limits of incremental improvement with this model.

A pyramid design can’t react and adapt quickly enough in a complex, fast-changing world.

A pyramid design no longer makes sense because it’s the “edge” of the organisation that has the greatest situational awareness and can react most swiftly and accurately to the needs of users and customers. Channelling authority via the centre is a surefire recipe for slowness and for decisions and approvals to lack context. The centre finds itself confusingly distant from what the organisation is doing, yet still feels responsible.

The dandelion: enabling autonomy and accountability

The information age speaks to decentralisation as a better solution for managing next-level complexity and adapting to continuous change. Redesigning our organisation from pyramids to dandelions, previously unthinkable, is fast becoming imperative for relevance and survival. Uncomfortable as it might feel, decentralisation is proven at massive scale. Frederic Laloux makes the striking point that the global economy doesn’t operate as a hierarchy. Billions of people and no central authority. Structure, yes, rules of engagement, yes, control, no.

In a dandelion world, the role of the centre is no longer control, but facilitation and coordination. Creating a conducive environment, structurally, culturally and emotionally, in which the edge is able to operate with both autonomy and accountability, whilst keeping everyone informed of what other parts of the organisation are doing. It’s a fundamental design change but, as the tech world has discovered, independent, autonomous microservices enable a system to scale beyond the limitations of a top-down monolithic design.

The digital age is built on technology, but it’s not about technology, it’s about the message. Letting go of what feels safe, yet has become dangerous, and embracing what at first feels dangerous, but actually allows us to move forward, grow and thrive in an increasingly complex world.