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Single point of failure or outperforming distributed teams?

Alternative Organizational Structures Drive Growth

I’m an Achilles heel, but I know it! The nature of our industry implies we have hierarchy — teachers, head teachers, academic leaders and a principal or CEO — but is it the right structure for today’s VUCA world?

Nick Allen
Mar 13, 2018 · 4 min read

This centralised hierarchical structure means we have clear interfaces with the government and regulatory bodies, roles with built in dependancies, and bottlenecks when it comes to decisions. From a risk perspective these bottlenecks are strategic weak points. Heck even my current job title, Head of Marketing, sounds ripe for lopping off and leaving a lifeless directionless body…

It’s an org structure that historically has been well adopted, but is it the right structure for today’s VUCA world?

Beyond my KPIs as a Marketing Director, I see my role in any organisation as head of distribution. Where possible moving from a centralised system to a distributed model. At least in terms of our marketing capacity if not the wider organisation.

Creating scaffolding. Enabling with tools that allow open records, transparency around actions and accountability, and systems that empower my team to make decisions that better serve customers.

So why did the centralised systems form?

When we identify chaos our first reaction is to classify what we’re seeing, create order and build complex systems to make the chaos understandable and tolerable. It’s why we have forms, policies, procedures and why everyone (except well intended guests and relatives) puts the coffee cups back in the same spot. It creates efficiency.

But at the start, who decides if your draw goes knife-fork-spoon or spoon-fork-knife?

Historically we had tribal leaders that knew what to do and could make decisions. Without procedures or scaffolding, we would look to those leaders for guidance. It seemed like the right way to run a company. When you get a lot of bodies together it seemed easier to control them through orders and one commanding voice. Think of that guy on the megaphone at a busy ferry terminal or at the start of a marathon, barking orders usually on a platform in a top down fashion.

A tribal leader was usually, in Darwinistic fashion, the toughest or strongest one that could win the battles.

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Decentralised Was A Step Forward

As globalism spread, we realised that a certain degree of decentralisation had to occur. If just, as an example, to scale and let the East India Company make decisions that couldn’t be shipped back and forth like goods every month.

Progressing slightly, decentralised movements gave some resilience. Each node has a head and the required body parts to function. But the constant battle is to standardise processes and procedures again in order to make sense of the differing markets. You loose economies of scale, as you gain some independence and diversity of revenue.

Distributed Independent Organisms — Starfish over Spiders

Modern first world society has become so dependent on centralised structures that we are all just 9 meals away from anarchy. So how do we mitigate this reliance? Re-wilding and home grown organics maybe? We’d be distributed for sure.

Brafman and Beckstrom Draw a fantastic analogy in their book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.

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Highly responsive, naturally resilient and adaptive, distributed systems and organisations cannot be controlled. This is in fact the basis of internet, a distributed system.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Wikipedia — Where no one author or contributor is responsible for verifying an entry, it has become a very strong source of basic encyclopaedic knowledge.
  • Terrorist cells — Modern terrorist cells are very hard to immobilise as each cell operates independently and can do so without revealing themselves through communication with others. In fact the most effective counterterrorist efforts have been conducted in cell like, rogue units, operating disconnected from the typical structured (predictable and traceable) Seal and SAS efforts.
  • Epidemics — AIDS and Bird flu are particularly hard to fight as our antibacterial usage struggles to combat continuous mutation and developing separate strains.

For some business examples check out:

  • Burtzorg (Europe) distributed healthcare
  • VALVE (USA) manager-less — game development
  • Enspiral (New Zealand) a cohort of self managing, distri ventures.

But why create something so organic/different from our current societal norms Nick?

Centralised organisations are very internally focused and looking up for guidance. Internal noise in many instances can drown out the outside world. At the very least it can leave your speech filled with acronyms and make communication with customers difficult.

Leaders now need to focus on managing the environment, connecting people with the purpose of the organisation and maintaining accountability.

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Developing small distributed agile teams I believe is the way to go. It will take a while, and many may never to shed their hierarchies.

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