It is no secret that I love planning. I’m not coming out of the closet now, that’s been true forever! And at some point in my life I was even “cool” with that.
Additionally, I want you to know (although you will not yet understand why) that I still love planning. That’s me 🙂 Now pay attention, I’m about to shoot myself in the foot.
Loading the gun
When I was in college there was a topic that I loved, the topic was Information Theory. There’s so much stuff in that area of research that I can’t even begin to touch the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so I’ll just say – for now – that information theory is an area of research that investigates information and how it is codified. For example: how do I compress a text file? Turns out, text can be very efficiently compressed. Perhaps the blog post you are reading can be codified in a few hundred bytes. The cool thing is why that happens: redundancy. Redundancy is an unappreciated quality of all systems.
So unappreciated in fact, that we all praise it’s mirror twin: efficiency. A compressed text file is very efficient (i.e. it codifies a lot of information in a very small amount of disk space – I could probably compress this post into 140 bytes and tweet it out – that would be efficient).
If we can create so efficient representation of information why would we stick the old-skool inefficient representation (for example: language)? I’m glad you ask! The reason is that language with all its redundancy is easy to understand even if you cut parts out or mangle the letters. Try reading the following paragraph (click for a larger version):
Did you understand what that said? Of course you did! Redundancy saves the day! Yay!
Now about software and organizations
In organizations and companies, we also have redundancy – plenty of it! And just as well, because without it most companies and organizations would stop working altogether. Redundancy gives us resilience! Just like in the language example above: even with parts of the words cut out of the phrase you were able to understand it! And this is just how organizations work: through, and thanks to, redundancy. This is the reason why some “downsizing” efforts end up killing whole companies, and the often touted “efficiencies” or “synergies” leaders try to gain from mergers and acquisitions end up destroying economic value more often than they create.
The trick with redundancy is to repeat
By now you probably agree that redundancy is good – and it is. But how do you apply it to your organization and processes?
Before we go there, we have to tackle a very neat concept of mathematics. Fractals. Fractals have a property that is mind-boggling. Fractals are concepts that once explored end up generating infinite (yes, infinite!) information. In fact, a fractal line has infinite length even while fitting in a finite space! I won’t bore you with the math details, but check this page on Wikipedia about the length of the British coast line – it has a neat demonstration of how a finite space can hold a line of infinite length.
This means that fractals are generative when it comes to information: they generate infinite amounts of information. And this happens to be a very useful property to have in mind when we explore how organizations work.
Making the case for infinity (and beyond)
In this post I argued that removing rules from your company’s process book is actually better for your business and for your teams. The next step is to remove as many rules as you can, so that you end up with a small and simple set of generative rules – just like a fractal. Fractals are very simple equations that have in themselves an infinite number of solutions. And that’s exactly what our processes should be: a small set of rules that, once in use, accommodate an infinite amount of possible behaviors – this is what I mean by “complex behavior” in the post on disciplined organizations.
Turns out fractals are perfect (yes, perfect – as in perfectly efficient) compression algorithms: a simple equation can be solved in an infinite number of ways, which when plotted in 2D or even 3D generate an infinite line in a finite space.
This property is extremely useful when applied to processes in your company because you cannot predict how people should behave in the future, but you can create an environment that – just like a fractal – allows every actor / person in the company to act in an infinite (and therefore practically unpredictable) number of ways and adapt to whatever the ever changing reality throws at them.
If you believe that your business environment is constantly changing, and that your organization is akin to a living organism you have to embrace the concept of fractal organizations.
Fractals work for you when they allow your blood vessels to reach every cell of your body (within a few cells distance), and when they allow your brain to store vast quantities of information even if it is small enough to fit in your head. Fractal organizations are organizations that can adapt in an infinite number of ways in response to an unpredictable environment.
If change is the only constant, how do I adapt to that?
Before we can understand how to apply the concept of fractal organizations and benefit from that, a very serious question must be answered: If people can behave in infinitely different ways, how do we prevent organizations from turning into chaos? That’s a question we will explore soon – stay tuned! 🙂
Do you want to know more?
Title image credit: John Hammink, follow him on twitter.