The Illegible Re-Org
How evolving org structures can lead to strong systems.
Legibility is a concept introduced by James C. Scott in his book Seeing Like a State. Governing bodies, he posits, simplify the world through abstraction to make it easier to understand and control.
German foresters of the 18th Century viewed forests through the lens of revenue. They ceased to value actual trees with their many uses, abstracting them to lumber yield. “Fiscal foresters” planted vast groves of single species arrayed in straight lines—ledger sheets instantiated in nature. For a century lumber yields swelled, only to crash with the second generation of trees. The managed forest, while legible to administrators, proved to be incredibly fragile.
The State is not the only administrative body made myopic by an obsession with legibility. Modern corporations treat their workforce as Germany treated its forests.
Think of a corporation as a piece of distributed software running in the heads of its employees. We recognize this software as process and purpose. Too often, process is inflexible and purpose viewed through a fiscal lens. Such systems ignore the rich social reality of the workforce. They are efficient, legible, but fragile.
The last re-org will fail if viewed as “final” rather than as an embracement of organic change. By making the purpose human and the process generative, the system puts decision-making in the hands of its people instead of in the process. While no individual will be able to understand the complex whole, the organization will have an agility and antifragility that only illegible systems possess.