Organisations replicate military structures. A general sits atop a hierarchy focused on strategy, supported by lieutenants responsible for implementation. Yet this is the military structure in peace time. In times of war it transforms into a fluid set of connected crews taking real-time decisions in a dynamic context without waiting for permission from HQ. So why do organisations copy a structure designed for training rather than one designed for action?
“The present ways of dividing labour have been historically based on a very different communications environment than the one we are living in at present. The earlier high cost of coordination and communication is the reason behind many of the organisational forms that are taken for granted and which we still experience. The digital world we live in today is totally different when it comes to the quality and costs associated with coordination, communication and contracting and allows us to experiment with totally new value creation architectures.”
‘Conway’s Law’ suggests that organisations are ‘constrained to design systems which are copies of the communication structures in these organisations.’ In other words, form (the org. chart) follows function (how people actually communicate with each other). The General and lieutenants sit atop a peacetime hierarchy to train how to work within constraints on communication in times of war. But why do CEOs and senior managers sit aloofly atop their hierachies — even in times of ‘war’?
Does leadership choose not to speak to people on the frontline?Fundamental changes in how we communicate represent a danger and an opportunity that the military is aware of: “Like war itself, our approach to war fighting must evolve. If we cease to refine, expand, and improve our profession, we risk being outdated, stagnant, and defeated” announced General Dunford, Marine Corp Commandant in 2015. Yet, non-military organisations remain wedded to ‘peacetime military structures’ despite the fluidity around them being more like a time of war than peace. Why?
Organisations are designed for power, not effectiveness. People continue to be ‘promoted to their own personal level of incompetence’ — a great sales person will be promoted to manager, but if they lack managerial competence they’ll go no further. However, they won’t re-join the ‘ranks’ either and the organisation not only loses a great ‘soldier’ but gains a mediocre lieutenant — increasing performance pressure on the entire organisation. People accept this misalignment between their own personal capabilities and role as this is where the power (and rewards) are.
Crews offer an alternative to entrenched hierarchyCrews differ from teams. They fluidly self-form (rather than being appointed by ‘the Centre’) to meet a defined need — then disband again once the objective is met. The ‘process’ of formation links members’ identities (aptitudes and attitudes) with the specific roles to perform — the leader may be the one who has a particular capability needed rather than merely being the more senior in the hierarchy. Sales teams have been doing this for years: dividing into ‘hunters’ — who land a client — and ‘farmers’ — who nurture the relationship thereafter.
Crews enhance organisation-wide agility. Simon Wardley introduced an important transitional role between two extremes (that the ‘hunter/farmer’ dichotomy ignores) in his ‘Pioneers — Settlers — Planners’ framework  that can help an organisation structure for battle rather than power:
These are silos: crucial to the rapid knowledge sharing and learning innovative and agile organisations require. Yet ‘the Centre’ today remains fixated on trying to destroy silos (despite a failure to do so everywhere) as they appear unaligned with the organisation (read: ‘the Centre’). Rather than destroying this most effective knowledge transfer system (Sharepoint doesn’t compare!) ‘the Centre’ needs to start creating the connections between silos to scale the breakthroughs these tight knit crews often make.
Creating a ‘Mechanism of Internal Theft’ (S.Wardley) — encouraging silos to ‘steal’ the work of earlier teams — augments a natural ‘pull through’ dynamic:
People’s identities are fluid  — meaning crews are not static. For example, I may be a Pioneer on one challenge but more of a Settler on another. The freedom to move between crews is crucial for autonomy, mastery and purpose — the three levers of intrinsic motivation and engagement. 
If the ‘Centre’ needs to justify it’s wage bill then it should concentrate on creating the conditions for crews to form, (think of ‘scrubbing up’ that cognitively activates surgeons) interact and develop each other — rather than breaking them down into atomised parts just to make them easier to control.The changing nature of how we communicate — where the entire world is inter-connected at essentially zero-cost — is changing the structure of human systems. How quickly organisations ‘refine, expand and improve’ their structures will distinguish those who succeed from those who quickly become ‘outdated, stagnant and defeated’. Working with how people really are should become a priority. Disrupt yourselves before others disrupt you.
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