Saturday, September 7, 2013

From Flux and Chaos, to Steady and Cyclical

Ralph Dopping asks How do you design for a business that is in constant flux? (emphasis, as added):
The idea of chaos, in this context, is the rebirth of the organizational hierarchy as it responds to new technology and innovation within the changing tide of business today. The article recognises that business shifts radically over short periods of time and traditional models of success such as a top down hierarchy are losing pace against an inclusionary approach of collaboration, flexibility and the agility realized through acceptance of change as a cultural norm. Organizations that are structured with the ability to make quick course corrections in response to shifts in the market are starting to outpace their competition.
The idea of chaos refers to an article Robert Safian wrote for Fast Company -  The Secrets of Generation Flux:
Generation Flux is a term I coined several months ago, in a Fast Company cover story that explained how the dizzying velocity of change in our economy has made chaos the defining feature of modern business. New companies--even industries--rise and fall faster than ever: Witness Apple, Facebook, and Amazon; witness Research in Motion, Blockbuster, and MySpace; witness the iPad and, yes, cloud computing. Accepted models for success are proving vulnerable, and pressure is building on giants like GE and Nokia, as their historic advantages of scale and efficiency run up against the benefits of agility and quick course corrections. Meanwhile, the bonds between employer and employee, and between brands and their customers, are more tenuous than ever.
Generation Flux describes the people who will thrive best in this environment. It is a psychographic, not a demographic--you can be any age and be GenFlux. Their characteristics are clear: an embrace of adaptability and flexibility; an openness to learning from anywhere; decisiveness tempered by the knowledge that business life today can shift radically every three months or so, as [Aaron] Levie says.
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In a message to Dopping, I wrote:

I read that awesome article on Fast Company (and it warrants re-reading). What's unusual, I believe, about major developments in recent years is this: New media, the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, has really not replaced traditional media. But it hums and speeds alongside. Yes, print has struggled mightily, but TV and radio seem to be thriving quite nicely. I joke with friends that e-mail is so 20th century, especially in a world of texting, WhatsApp and Snapchat. Yet this, too, is a thriving mode of communication and marketers know it.

So one of the pivotal points in that Fast Company article is: command-and-control management must continue, but alongside a grassroots, bottom-up freedom for employees. Traditional hierarchy is just as important, as a flat, more open organizational structure. It's matter of "and-both," not "either-or."

When I read your article, I looked for more definitive design statements in answer to your question. I didn't quite find what I was looking for. But I realized that what you were drawing up in your article, for example, under the section - How do we plan space for a company whose culture is one of reinvention? - was the algorithm I mentioned in my tweet. I've been hard at work on a conceptual framework and practical applications model for this, and neither is wedded to a particular situation, function or purpose. Rather, it focuses on and applies to a wide range of things.

When Larry Page took over the CEO reins at Google in early 2011, one of the things he did apparently was something you touched on in your article: Open up spaces in their buildings for employees to naturally come together and work alongside one another. Steve Jobs had long had this structure in place at Apple.

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Key takeaways for top leaders

  • Adapt, or be adopted.  
I suppose that's pithy enough.  In other words, be proactive vis-a-vis changes in the business landscape, or relegate yourselves and your people to responding to these changes reactively.
  • These changes may look and feel chaotic, but these will subside and undergo a cycle of greater-to-lesser fluctuation.  
Consider this, from human development:  As children undergo puberty, radical transformations occur in their bodies, for instance, synaptic connections are breaking, in order to form new, more intricate and expansive connections.  From neurological, to anatomical, to reproductive, their bodies are preparing for the rigors and capabilities of adulthood.  This period can be highly disconcerting for children, but in time these changes subside and the grown body keeps developing but at a steadier pace and in a more manageable fashion.  So it is in business, although writers like Safian, even Dopping may make it seem like everything will forever be in flux or chaos.
  • The changes in media and technology are, to me, phenomenal and thus intriguing.  
Again, it's not a matter of the new supplanting the old.  Rather, it's evolution, plus extension and expansion, or a multi-linear evolution, which can indeed feel quite disconcerting for people.  It's what I call "and-both."
  • The way I conceptualize an algorithm is more like a smart organism, not a code, device or product. 
Traditionally speaking, an algorithm is a methodology (of a sort) for solving problems and accomplishing tasks.  However, my use of the term makes it is a meta-methodology.  That is, over time, it learns from what happens, adapts or otherwise revises itself accordingly, and is thus better able to solve newer, more complex problems.  It's a methodology, in other words, for choosing the right methodology to solve a problem or get something done, at any given time, instead of a static approach that solves or accomplishes in preset fashion.  Design has to be this smart and this adaptable.  As far as I understand, no technologist or scientist has yet come up with an artificially-intelligent machine.  So, in point of fact, the core of that algorithm is our brain (i.e., our mind).
  • People can develop themselves to be more open and adaptable as well as thoughtful yet decisive.  But only to a certain extent.
In reality, not everyone has the same type or same degree of ability.  For example, some may be better suited and able to deal with ambiguity or chaos, while others fit better in a more orderly, more set environment.  So CEOs must discern what sort of people the business needs, going forward, in order to be successful.  Then they recruit such people.

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At the end of the day, it is important for top leaders to pause, reflect or meditate, and think things through on a regular basis.  Then they can better decide what they need to do and how best to go forward.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

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