Archive for July, 2014

Think larger…

There are at least four fundamental axes of organisation:  Production, Relationships, Communication and some kind of cr...

July 20, 2014

There are at least four fundamental axes of organisation:  Production, Relationships, Communication and some kind of creative Entropy. There are probably many more, but these will do, to illustrate the point.

The state of any social system, envisioned on these axes, will obviously vary – from one extreme to another. The ‘scale’ of this variation will be the degree of sameness or homogeneity that is both assumed and desired by the would-be system ‘manager’…

So for example, if your belief as a manager is the left brain assumption that we are living in a mechanistic age, in which the outcomes of things may be largely predetermined, or are at least predetermin-able, you will tend to want to atomise the world you experience into small, homogeneous clumps, so it can be controlled, planned, predicted and managed within that planning framework.

In the forthcoming slides, produced with the thoughtful input of many named and accredited people, I will characterise this assumption of maximum, granular sameness as ‘Old World’ thinking – embodying the tacit assumption that the world is merely complicated.  The consequence of this complicated thinking is to break down the world into its lowest common denominators – minimal addressable units of internally consistent demand, belief or behaviour.

For communicators, the assumption of a complicated world is that the greatest control can be administered by promoting consensus. As an old world power-wielder, I am likely to  succumb to the urge to have people be ‘on message'; to be net promoters of my brand; to be consistent party voters.  By being consistent, they become manageable and my brand equity grows.

As a marketing communications or product producer in a complicated system, I want predictable supply-chain sources and processes. I want the minimal possible amount of required tailoring and the maximum amount of fit to customers’ needs. Ford’s Model T, a can of coke or a mars bar would be good examples – where demand perfectly matches my constrained production boundaries.

In terms of relationships, I would ideally like to limit as far as possible the voting breadth and inter-action of my ‘constituents’, to minimise the confusion and disruption they may cause.  I would like their inputs to be binary, their voice-outlets as few as possible, and their voting impacts constrained.

Finally in terms of entropy, an Old World manager’s aim is to create the maximum amount of predictability in the system; thus the capacity for change embodied in disorder (and especially unreversible processes) will want to be to minimise deviation not just in product, but also in process. This Old World, universalist and particularist scenario is summarised below.

Old World

It will doubtless be objected that nobody ‘seriously’ tries to manage a business at this level of  ‘sameness’.  This sort of mechanistic command and control ethos went out with the spinning jenny didn’t it? Or at least found it’s apogee in  the car factory.  This is anything but true – that behind the respective veils of soft ‘fat’ (rather than lean) trends like Engagement, Conversation, Inclusiveness and Relationship Management lies a defensive and consciously conservative planning ethos which still adopts an attitude of pseudo-scientific certainty and acts ‘as if’ human systems were indeed controllable.

A further objection to this model, even as an extreme picture, will be that it implies no competitive activity, or rather no  change.  And that in real life businesses and organisation work in a much more adaptive way. And indeed they do.

However, they do not wish to.  The Old World logic of annual budgets, appraisal cycles and carefully calendared meeting-cycles accustoms technocratic managers to carefully co-ordinated showpieces in terms of their product launches and investment reports.  Similarly, organisational charts, Enterprise Resource Planning and Business Information Systems for example, all strive to give an impression of control. The argument during the 1990s, and it’s a good one, was that short-term shareholder-oriented management was a bad thing and led to underinvestment in long-term resources and capabilities and erosion of long-term value. Certainly it corroded stakeholder value.

In parallel, but in the opposite direction ran the argument that management actually needed to be much more real time and more accountable to real-time challenges; that long wave-length management will always be too distanced and rigid to cope with the energetic bustle of market-led change.

The emergence of techniques like agile development and agile management exists as a counter to this fat, long-term ethos and prizes experimentation, short sprints, and rapid assimilation of input in an effort combine longstanding principles of just in time resource management, anihilation of deviations (from customer need in this instance) and assembly of minimal component of processes, alongside collaboration and meta-learning. Techniques like SCRUM and Kanban are now being widely adopted to make IT systems more adaptive at a micro level to real-world business need.  The same mechanistically adaptive logic might well be thought to apply to social engagement writ large…

So to summarise all this –  if the ‘old world’ can be stereotyped as ‘too’ atomistic, mechanistic, deterministic and many other ‘-ics’, as well as falsely homogeneous, what of the new world?

The New World, unsurprisingly, can be caricatured as heterogeneous. It’s just ‘turtles all the way down’ of course – but at least every one is different.  The big difference in new world thinking is that instead of recognising fractal, and hence replicable and modellable patterns within the areas it wants to affect, the world behind to recognise error and miscopying  as vital to change. The new world accepts multiple complex sub-systems – but accepts they are liable to error, spontaneous creativity and diversification.

While the old world describes man as master – the supreme engineer – the new world describes man as a fellow organism within a natural system, freer, within smaller scale systems, and able to leverage more group entropy and internal dissonance.

To turn to our 4 chosen dimensions, a new world view of value-creation would not be to create ‘universal product’, but at the extreme to create group-adapted product every time. These sorts of customised models already exist in abundance ‘out there’ in  hyphenated world of tariff-tailoring, content-bundling, spotify-style mass individualisation and Amazon’s long-tail recruitment and specialist recommendation based on an emergent logic of contextual modelling and ‘in memory’ computing. The simple argument these technology solutions make is that the whole world is addressable in principle through social production and social delivery. There is a market for everything and a solution for everyone, if only you can make product addressable far enough along the ‘long-tail’ of need.

The same logic underpins the emergence of shared-value. To take a trivial instance, just because developing-world rural dwellers may not have the funds, storage or insfrastructure to buy a huge tube of toothpaste, they can still clean their teeth! Novel solutions can be created melding global resources and local solutions through pragmatic and simple solutions like more lasting brushes and smaller packaged pastes.

Similarly, the opposite to the quality control, deviation reduction and internal engagement obsessions that tried to drive Old World effort into everything to create consistency and stability, now find their opposites in a New World that acknowledges that the nature of the future itself is uncertain. Social, political, economic outcomes are planned by never delivered. And this is as it should be. Because something else, more interesting occurs instead.

Reality, and specifically the realpolitik of stakeholders’ needs always gets in the way. The macro-future – climate change, global recession, north-south power shifts, just as much as the micro politics of your payrise or who is buying the beers tonight come down to accidents of influence. The fact that plans never come true of course, doesn’t make planning pointless. Far from it – as long as that planning recognises its dependencies on networks beyond its immediate influence.

Rather than thinking of targeting constituents to elicit a ‘vote versus a no vote’ response or a ‘buy versus no-buy’ response, the new world paradigm observes the world as a spaghetti of only partly self-identifying communities. These allegiances may be temporary, as a ‘new parent’ or ‘NCT-er’ for example, or more lasting as an ‘environmentalist’ or ‘MacMillan supporter’, churchgoer’ or ‘muslim’ or a ‘woman’ or a ‘retired person’.  The crucial insight in this new world is not that these social identifications offer fresh behavioural segmentation, but that they unlock new networks of loose ties that can be travelled as pathways by inspirational viral messages and behaviours. More importantly still, these connections may offer ‘sufficiently strong’ ties to bind groups to take action together. They thus form the organic scaffolding for new experiments in integrated social learning…

Finally, reviewing the axes of the New World, it’s worth noticing that the opposite of consensus is dissidence – the creation of contrarian or minority thought and action – the element that is the most vital ingredient in change. In this context, the mode of engagement is not persuasion, co-ercion or the three-line whip (in UK terms) but the simple recognition and re-assimilation of difference.

New WorldThe goal here, in this emergent or possibly reemergent world is the transparent wielding of political intelligence – to surface, though sincerity and trustworthiness, areas of difference and allow what is expedient to proceed through common evaluation.

While old world consensus-building is a masking or spray-cover technique, political dissidence, or more accurately integrative dissidence is a weaving technique. It does not let go of difference. Indeed it needs it for colour, texture and interest.  But it also understands how to connect those opinions and skills into a dynamic whole.

Of course in reality neither the banal, mechanistic conformities of the Old World, not the exhilarating, individualistic humanism of the New World actually exists. What prevails in reality is a constant ebb and flow between the two sets of assumptions: the two systems and mental models of power: competed and contested. Left and right brain, united. Biology and Physics. Artistry and rationalism.

In practice, between the individual and the organisation exist a series of diverse groups that form, dissolve and reform chaordically in endless formats. At any one time these groups – anything from a duo in a meeting room to a conference room full of people conducting open space workshops, all will be interrelating to each other, however weakly. These interactions and the way they are experienced is the stuff of life.

Within these ad hoc groups we are each of us engaged in an endless series of experiments to make change happen through influence, to learn about ourselves through assimilating the feedback and inspiration of others, and to change ourselves.

Real WorldThe challenge of the Real World is the familiar buddhist-style tension – either simply to accept the oscillation between institutional and individual ways of being (stability changing places with volatility; assimilation with projection etc) – or better still, to find ways to weave a more inclusive approach into our group relations: recognising that both giving and taking as both patterns of holding.

The systemic aim lies in recognising that individual identity contains both breathing in and breathing out, metaphorically.

We can think of this insight as a sort of social mindfulness – a sort of pragmatic version of the social imagination espoused by C. Wright Mills, and absolutely aligned with the group dynamics and situationalism of Mary Parker Follett.

In Follett’s own words, the challenge of this real world is “the integration of difference without annihilation or absorption.”

Our challenge, then, is to continually seek out and try new ways of relating that respond to this reality, and begin to turn a fractured web of organisational being into solid, secure pathways, which are commonly understood. They must be explicitly social. To become less abstract for a second, we need to explore new ways of relating which are not about pre-ordained power and control, but about instantaneous being and becoming.  We need to experiment with ways of relating within organisational structures, which reflect and respect the dignity of the group, not just the individual.

This real world is not just a merger between the monochrome nature of the old engineering paradigm, and the vivid palette of the newer organic or biological one; it is just as importantly a collision between internal experience and external projection; between inner chaos and outer gloss – between surface appearance and deep structure.


The human condition remains a process of adapting and coping with change. We are creatures of flesh and feeling as much as thought and theology. The logic of the group remains a tension between mutual nurture and dominance.

Crucially, the things that might set us free from these limitations – grand alignments of vision, agreement on values; the zero-sum bargains of accommodated self-interest – all fall down in the face of a complete human being.

The reality is that these idealised ‘management’ conceptions of how we are supposed to be: visionary, fast, empowered etc, all describe stereotypes which in practice conceal a veneer of hesitancy and confusion. As work-life balance increasingly vanishes, and social media consume ever more of our waking time, the ability to maintain a veneer on ‘reality’ diminishes. New ways of relating are needed for a post-industrial age but our social function has not caught up with the new nature of work.

Organisations of all forms work well split into functions when they are populated by self-identifying ‘units of production’. But they work much less well when confronted by interdynamic questions of loyalty, love or leadership…

So we conclude that the new world munches the old, but does not digest it. Or perhaps the other way around. The old digests the new.  In truth digestion is probably just a bad analogy here. What we have here is not consumption, not even dialectic clash, but a process of weaving. The old the warp, the new the weft. Most innovation appears merely as slubs of ideas, causing a little bulging of the fabric here and there and a little chafing, but never fundamentally altering colour or texture.

The innovation; the new ideas and inspirations are contained. There is no ‘paradigm shift’ from cotton to nylon, what happens instead is that variation is merely incorporated into ‘the tweed of life’.

An American poet once wrote beautifully about this:

WaltOver-reading Whitman, just a little, we can perhaps interpret the ‘groups’ of Mary Parker Follett as the fabric of reality. If individuals provide the thread, it is groups that weave them together.

This is the central metaphor of ‘containing’, without contaminating or distorting. Whitman’s ‘large’ is an expression of scope, of scale, of imagination, ambition and range. Whitman, of course is talking about individual complexity – our ability to flip from role to role in an instant , to be obtuse as often as acute; closed as frequently as open.

But the middle lines of this extract are also enlightening. Who, he asks, will discard the trivia of his daily life? Who is tired of repetition?  In those central lines, Whitman prepared us for an offer to those who stand ready at the exit door ready to depart. In management terms this can be read as a plea for readiness and responsiveness. As the market moves; as customers move; as colleagues move, are you ready?

It feels wrong in many ways to bastardise Whitman to the expediency of management thought. And yet when work occupies so much of life, maybe it’s inevitable that we should do so.  The final stanza – “Who will walk with me” is a plea for diversity. It is an open invitation to humankind to take a step forward in self-discovery. I can’t think of a better encapsulation of the orientation to act. Carpe Diem.

With any luck you may by now be in agreement that something or other goes on in human society, in the interplay between the analytic-scientific and the creative-artistic worlds.

Attempts at scientific management are not misguided; they are suggestive of underlying structure. Their efforts to individuate and compartmentalise are vital to understanding. Meanwhile efforts at the rehumanisation of work, its socialisation, spiritualisation or systematisation are equally well-meaning. They tell us something of unpredictability, mutual dependence and humility.

The middle ground – the inclusive ‘large’ space of reality – reminds us that we ourselves are (for materialists) simply trillion-cell biological systems interacting with other systems. While we may strive for control of big things like outcomes, and spend our time articulating grand visions, the reality is that our efforts are far better focused at the level of interaction, and the nests of interaction we can construct through group work.

Our ambition should stop, I believe, at the level of principles, and aspirations rather than fall into the delusional realm of outcomes.  But even so, we must know what we stand for. The following feel like a good start point:

PrinciplesHow does this lack of large talent, large practice and large thinking affect organisations in practice? Predominantly at the level of collaboration and innovation, I suspect.

In organisations today, the management clichés still apply. It is much easier to say no, than yes. Most breakthroughs are attributable to the efforts of a few determined individuals, who often have to break the rules to make progress. Support functions like HR, Finance IT, Legal and even Communications spend vast amounts of time reducing risk, rather than creating opportunity.

Functional boundaries act primarily as a defence on unwanted contact and decision-making pressure. They act as coping mechanisms for collaborative pressure.

Large practices, by contrast, are designed to make groups based on talent, knowledge and shared ambition, rather than authority, resources or formal mandates. Large thinking privileges individual autonomy, but only in service to ‘the group’.

It rejects formal co-dependencies in favour of ball and socket thinking – holding one anothers’ needs in ways that allow full rotation. It prioritises actionable shared insights, and techniques rather than skills, per se. It favours attitude before aptitude, but sees both as necessary. It seeks out novel ways of breaking down organisational boundaries – challenging traditional Taylorite management practices, quality principles or ‘management by walking about’.  Instead it favours management by walking with. This ethos offers a strong echo of Parker Follett’s identification of power in and power through others as a rejection of power over.

If a large learning lab were to be formed, it would seek to overcome the following sorts of social capability issues:

EmployersThe question remains, then: how do we begin to equip organisations to exist ‘largely’ in the inclusive space between new and old? And how do we equip individuals to cope well and function effectively in this high contact, multi-role, porous boundaried, granular future…?

If this is a real issue – and rates of mental illness, job dissatisfaction and slow rates of large company job-growth suggest it is – then the solution must be many-fold.

Some crucial elements of a large approach are laid out in the slide below:


Large EducationThere are a number of imperatives underway here:

1. To establish large skills (or better put, ‘techniques’) as an accepted ‘way of understanding the world’ – and describe better what they stands for.

2. To build a network capable of creating an emergent portfolio of large skills – especially those which blend social, psychological and digital – through compilation and experimentation, and share those processes.

3. To recognise those techniques by direct viral propagation and by licensing to encourage ‘for-profit’ partners to participate in dissemination. In so doing, we will also need to reward those who use the techniques by recognition – both celebration and publicity, giving credit where credit is due.

And finally,

4. To recognise exemplary efforts and bring them to prominence in ways which inspire outlying groups and capabilities to develop further confidence.

5. To make use of the ‘celebrity’ of the emerging expert practitioners to encourage new adopters of large thinking to enrich its meaning, and thereby contribute to the growing diverse pool of knowledge.

The good news of course that many of the required tools are already in play today. From experimental theatre and improvisation to hosted social CRM platforms and MOOCs, many of the underlying principles of large thinking are already visible within organisations and society, as indeed they must be, being based on human instincts…

Mindfulness, for example, which started out as a process of spiritual reflection has been subsumed into the self-help movement, thence into therapeutic practice and now into as aspect of employee wellbeing and performance.


It can surely only be a matter of time until it is vacuumed up into group-level practice along with previous tools like Myers Briggs and Jungian archetypal analysis. Similarly Open Innovation – the recognition that innovation occurs not only in darkened IP-protected labs, but in collaborative fora, with customers and competitors at the table, for mutual benefit – is also well-attuned to large thinking.

Attitudes like inclusiveness, a focus on dynamics, and loose holding of relationships are all reflected in the its spirit of openness. Ubiquitous transformation – admittedly verbal stretch to produce the necessary acronym – just speaks to a relentless cauldron of change in organisations.

Much of this change may be superficial in practice, and purely confined to the surface. Nonetheless, it needs to be coped with. The march of new technology, the continual emergence of new businesses, the greater availability of knowledge and the unresponsiveness of traditional structures create continual collisions or roles and rules which produce frustration and anger if not surfaced and assimilated by large processes.

Shared value, as promulgated by Michael Porter, can be seen (at least) two ways: either as a means for large companies to colonise new markets with relevant products, or as a genuine attempt to co-innovate with emergent markets in mutual beneficial ways. Both are true. From different sides, these dynamics simply represent ways of integrating new world thinking into old world practices. The value-chain at the back of shared value thinking is a special case of group interdynamics.

Finally evidence-based strategy, exemplified by evidence-based medicine or evidence-based policy is a typical trend which exists in theory, if not in practiced towards an ever-emergent realism in decision-making. Evidence-based thinking is a hypothetical example of a self-correcting process. Similarly large thinking reflects an action-oriented, ever-ready process that ‘waits on the door slab’ and is ever prepared to self-scrutinise in a process of continual learning.

So what is to be done, then, to bring about large organisations and a large society? Certainly it is not a ‘Big Society’ in terms of assuming the burden of services.  This is assuredly not about shrinking the public sector. Neither is it about outsourcing social functions to resource-deprived third sector organisations. Nor yet about empowering a capital-subsidised market to compete away regulated services. But is certainly does share the bottom-up, or middle-across processes of big society thinking, and it’s sense of empowerment. In the words of Will Bentinck, it is assuredly about creating ‘little princes’ who can humanely challenge the status quo and fondly reveal its lack of rootedness, while cultivating something better.

Large thinking is about the conduct of intentional social learning experiments which are digitally literate and radically inclusive – of disadvantaged, disenfranchised and simply dislocated groups.

Its intention is to help take to scale those approaches to individual and social learning which single actors alone cannot accomplish, by focusing on equipping both individuals and society to play a more contributory role in collaborative groups.

To that end a group of disparate individuals with a mixture of skill-sets from technology, social engagement, charities and commerce has come together to turn this simplified analysis of an ongoing human malaise into a practical vehicle for change.

Its mission can be encompassed simplistically, but hopefully in the slide below: