Popular belief has it that speed comes either from agents acting independently or under a highly coordinated system. However, it is known that a school of fish reacts to a threat, e.g. a predator, faster than an individual fish does. We also know that the school of fish does not act under orders of a ‘boss’ fish or in a tightly controlled system.
How do we build organizations that respond fastest?
This is the science of CAS- Complex Adaptive Systems. The idea can best be explained in terms of distributed control which means that the outcomes emerge from a process of self-organization rather than being designed and controlled externally. In the example of the school of fish above, there is no one fish smarter than the others, directing the school. If that were to be the case, it would result in the school reacting at least as slow as the slowest fish.
In a distributed system, the rule is to provide minimum specifications rather than plan every detail. That’s the way birds fly in a flock. The only rules each bird follows is, 1. Maintain a certain distance from other birds, 2. Match speed with neighbors and, 3. Move towards the center of the mass. That’s all that is needed.
This principle would suggest that intricate strategic plans be replaced by simple documents that describe the general direction the organization is pursuing and a few basic principles on how to get there. The rest is left to the flexibility, adaptability and creativity of the system, reacting continuously to the changing context. This, of course, is frightening thought for leaders classically trained in the machine and military metaphor. But the key question is – are these traditional metaphors working? Is your organization just a machine, or military?
The metaphor of life being ‘physics’ is not working well. Physics implies fixed rules and predictability with outcome being determined by the qualities and capabilities of the individual agents. On the other hand, we have the metaphor of ‘biology’, which is more of a living thing than physics. In biology, the outcome depends more on the connections and interactions between the parts than the capabilities of the parts themselves. Context and relationships matter.
The quintessential organizational example of the principle of good enough vision and minimum specification is the credit card company, Visa international. Despite its $ 1 trillion annual sales volume and half a billion clients, few people can tell you where it headquarters is. Visa works on the principle that its members (typically banks that issue the visa credit cards) cooperate intensely in a narrow band of activity essential for the success of the whole, for example, the graphic layout of the card and common clearing house operations, while competing fiercely in all else, including going after each other’s customers This blend of minimum specifications in the essential areas and complete freedom in all others has allowed Visa to grow 10,000 percent since 1970.