Smashing the Organizational Hierarchy

“Our world is changing.” -Pretty much anyone writing about technology

John Maeda gave a talk at Drexel University’s ExCITe Center last Tuesday. You may know Maeda as the author of The Laws of Simplicity, initially a spearhead in the STEM to STEAM movement in the U.S., or most recently the Global Head, Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic — or maybe you don’t, but he is all of those things regardless.

He talked about his title of “Inclusion” and what it meant for him. Designers and artists should learn to code, he said. There’s value in the ability to build out what you imagine, especially if you can do so alongside the people who will use what you build (that’s good UX design right there). But he also spoke about this concept of organizational hierarchy, which is what industries used to be like, and heterarchy, which is what industries are like now that we have mobile technology. Before, one person was the leader of many. To speak to that one person, you’d have to go through the many. Now, the lines of communication are far more direct and often instantaneous.

The “many-to-many” model of communication afforded to us by the Internet and further aided by mobile technology means that almost everyone becomes a leader. Instead of working solely in small teams with people who share the same background, we work with people from all places and so need the broad knowledge that empowers leaders and let’s them do their jobs well. According to Maeda, “creative people make the best leaders, because they have a kind of audacity, and curiosity, and agility to live in a more heterarchical world.”

This may feel like a burden. Being trained as a designer or artist is a lot of work on its own — now we need to train for something else on top of that?

“Our world is changing.”

You probably hear this often. What a powerful, yet meaningless phrase. The world has been changing for the last 4.5 billion years. There’s always something new to adapt to.

The interesting thing about how we as humans have adapted for a long time is that we are the ones invoking the change. Think about fire and electricity. Think about agriculture and industrial manufacturing. Think about paper and the clothes you wear. When we discover or create new tools to use, to keep us safe or to help us live, the way we approach life changes in ways both big and small. We feel this shift so much when we live through it, of course, and forget the shifts that happened in the past. We take for granted what we have now and act without considering that we are shaping the future.

So, let’s talk about millennials. Please don’t roll your eyes — I used to hate hearing that word, too. I’ve since embraced my position as a millennial for reasons I hope to convey here shortly. But even if you’re part of an older generation (or maybe younger?), I think there’s something for you to take away also.

Burden is a good word for what most of us feel. To be forced into a position we didn’t ask for and to be criticized by the people who put us here for being the way they made us. Notice how I didn’t use the word millennial in either of those sentences? It’s because this, too, is nothing new. This is something all generations go through. So, my question to you is this: Why complain about it, then?

And I don’t mean to just shut up, suck it up and get back to work — actually, I do mean that a little. Let’s just do the work. It’s not going to be easy, but let’s do it. Let’s soak in as much as we can along the way, then use that knowledge later to outperform. Let’s be leaders. Let’s create things they never thought we could.

Let’s learn code and design skills and use those to understand the work our peers do. Use them to understand how to communicate your ideas. Use them to help your users get exactly what they need. Use them to teach your users how to make exactly what they need.

Let’s take our burdens and use them as fuel. Let’s empower ourselves and everyone else around us. But let’s not stop there — let’s do something few people do in the business world. Let’s consider the people who come after us.

What burdens do we want to place on them?

We didn’t create the world and the problems that face us today. The universe and our ancestors did that. But what we have is the power to create the future and to do so in a way that is considerate.

“Our world is changing.” Didn’t your writing teacher ever talk to you about the passive voice? If you speak passively, you’ll live passively too.

We change our world. Let’s change it for the better.