Rhizomatic Organizations [Rao]

Breaking Smart: Frankenstacks and Rhizomes by Venkatesh Rao

I’ve been a Breaking Smart subscriber for almost a year now and this is exactly the type of post that made my subscribe in the first place.

If you skip the Ethereum intro, and look beyond that IT-focused framing, you’re left with a fascinating concept.

Rao introduce the distinction between Rhizome — a structure that allow for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation — and Arborescent— as tructure following totalizing principles, binarism and dualism.

In the context of the organizations, while the transition from a hierarchical to a networked mental model is a hot trend in organizational design, both concepts remain in the realm of arborescent. Trying to capture the complex, multi-dimensional attributes of the organization in a reductionist, two-dimensional architecture. But what if we started looking at organizations as rhizomes?

Rao suggests that this leads to some interesting insights, and able to predict interesting phenomena that we’ve all encountered:

The archetypal action in a rhizomatic information architecture is cut-and-paste. The spreadsheet is the archetypal integration tool: a sort of generalized clipboard. There is a relationship here to the idea that the medium is the message, and Conway’s law (product structure mirrors org structure). Our information environments are becoming rhizomatic because our informational lives are becoming rhizomatic, and vice versa, in a chicken-and-egg loop.

There is perhaps a distinction between a n00b and an expert, but it is highly localized around specific corners of the rhizome. You can go from n00b to expert and back to n00b in 2 steps. In a traditional org, you can count the floors between the executive suite and say the shop floor where blue-collar workers build products on assembly lines. Authority falls as the elevator descends. n00b/expert relationships change slowly and predictably in space as you move. Expertise and authority turfs are simply connected and simply bounded. In a rhizome, in a move from point A to point B, relative knowledge and expertise might swing wildly. And the value of actions might swing wildly while you’re moving

A rhizome is also a high-friction space. Movement through a rhizome involves an unpredictable stream of transaction costs. Every journey is an obstacle course… Sometimes a single click moves mountains. Other times, you need to move mountains to do one tiny thing. Effort-outcome relationships get out of whack… In a rhizomatic world, if your expectations and work habits are built around architectural cleanliness, you will get deeply frustrated and be perennially frozen. If you can only navigate well-paved paths and clean, well-lit spaces, you’ll likely spend a lot of time in low-value, or even futile, ritualized behaviors while getting nothing done. You must be willing to adopt an opportunistic approach to navigating complexity, and switch from ugly hack to elegant beauty, from amateurish fumble to expert flourish, in an instant.