Ubuntu: A New Way to Work

“Teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” — Michael Jordan

There was an anthropologist dispatched to Africa many years ago to study the lives and customs of local tribes. While each one is unique, they share many customs across the geographies and locations. The anthropologist tells a story of how one time he brought along a large basket of candy, which quickly got the attention of all the children in the tribe. Instead of just handing it out, he decided to play a game. He sat the basket of candy under a tree and gathered all of the children about 50 yards away from the tree. He informed them that they would have a race, and that the first child to get there could keep all of the candy to themselves. The children lined up, ready for the race. When the anthropologist said “Go”, he was surprised to see what happened: all of the children joined hands and moved towards the tree in unison. When they got there, they neatly divided up the candy and sat down to enjoy it together. When he questioned why they did this, the children responded, “Ubuntu. How could any of us be happy if all the others were sad.”

Nelson Mandela describes it well; “In Africa, there is a concept known as Ubuntu- the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”

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In Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, Carlota Perez writes about different technology revolutions, and the impact that they have in a broad sense, on finance, employment, social impacts, and the nature of firms. She asserts that we have started and completed 4 revolutions (Industrial, Steam/Railways, Steel/Heavy Engineering, Oil/Autos/Mass Production) and are in the middle of another (Information and Communications). Each revolution has an installation phase and a deployment phase. We are nearing the deployment phase for the current revolution.

Despite the fact that the Industrial Revolution was in the 1700’s, the definition of a firm from that era is still dominant. At that time, all resources were brought together for the purpose of economies of scale. And, as other revolutions occurred, the size of a firm continued to grow. Companies saw a distinct advantage in size: distribution, cost, access to resources, etc. This made perfect sense for those eras. However, the Information and Communications Revolution is quickly altering the optimal size of a firm. Speed is most important and speed comes with a smaller size. Unless a large enterprise can teach itself to truly act small.

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This video on Agile practices and organization from Spotify demonstrates the speed that comes with a smaller size. Nowhere in this video is there a discussion of reporting lines; yet, that culture still dominates the large companies in the world today. Until reporting lines are no longer a consideration for how things get done, large organizations will suffer.

Reporting lines exist largely for administrative reasons; large companies need some way to organize teams and ensure that everyone receives the leadership, career development, skills development, and focus that is needed. But, reporting lines no longer need to dictate how work gets done. Understanding this is key.

Let me illustrate in a picture:

The key point is the dotted circle: how teams form and how work gets done. To date, the vast majority of teams in large companies have formed based on the organization chart (“Yesterday’s Organization”). This is a deterrent to speed and agility. Some large companies have mastered a matrix organization that enables speed, but they are in the minority.

There is an old saying that you can see the organization chart in the design of a large companies products. Why? Because products are built in “Yesterday’s Organization”. The faster a company moves to “Tomorrow’s Organization”, the faster they will be successful.

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