“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea…”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Business journalism is saturated with the last half-century’s collective wisdom on what makes a good leader. That’s great, but sifting through it is sometimes like boiling the ocean. Often we’re left wondering about scale: How much of that greatness is a direct result of the leader’s style and decisions, and how much of it is about who and what activity surrounds the leader? Like trying to pin down what makes a good film, it’s not so easy anymore to separate the auteur from the script, the actors, the editors, the crew…Why? Because most organizations today are complex networks of internal and external stakeholders. Like a great director, a great leader today is really a network orchestrator.
“O Captain, My Captain”? or “a man of many notions”?
I like boat metaphors. Traditionally, the leader of an organization is the one who’s supposed to steer the boat, which requires both a tactical mastery of the boat itself and a strategic (and in the best cases, intuitive) understanding of the waters and the wind. These days, though, it gets harder and harder to separate ourselves from the ocean and the others navigating its waters, because together we are mapping new lands at an astonishing pace. Look at what everyone’s talking about: Internet of Things, blockchain, DAOs, ride-sharing…all networks with elements of decentralization and self-organization to offset the complexity required of them in a hyperconnected environment.
“Like a great director, a great leader today is really a network orchestrator.”
Leadership in the network age is increasingly about designing those networks. The boats and their ocean are inseparable, and as old boundaries and mechanistic metaphors dissolve and give way to more permeable, dynamic structures like ecosystems and networks, a new silhouette of ‘leader’ comes into focus — that of designer. When we think like a designer, we can use network science to model how our decisions ripple through not only our teams and organizations but past their disappearing borders and into the commons we all depend on to generate innovation.
Why should a leader think like a designer? Well,
A network is only as good as its ability to facilitate information flow. Competitive advantage requires innovation, and innovation is just another form of emergence. Emergence happens when lots of diverse connections are being made between many nodes across different scales of a system. From this collective co-mingling emerges the conversations and knowledge-sharing that make activities like technology adoption, exploration, and problem-solving possible. The organizations that have agency (the ones that make big ripples) are the ones that are best able to harness the collective intelligence of the commons, take it in, digest it, and add unique value through innovation. As Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complexity Science Institute, said, “Networks — and that includes teams, companies, markets — are organisms. They are not homogeneous; they contain parts (organs) that have different functions but all work together.” Good leaders — good network designers — understand this.
“Science tells us that if any system, including an organization, is not at least as complex as the demands its environment places upon it, it will fail.”
Network Dialog: The multi-directional communication that happens between an organization, its brand, and its stakeholders.
Verticals are not the end of the story. The real juice of innovation happens if there’s a healthy network dialog. Even better if it’s open source. Best if it includes both competition and cooperation across scales. Don’t believe me? Zoom out.
Science tells us that if any system, including an organization, is not at least as complex as the demands its environment places upon it, it will fail. It needs to be coordinated enough to move and grow information, specialized enough to meet complex demands, flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions and feedback. It needs parts that are independent at one scale and interdependent at others.
According to Bar-Yam, there are three types of behavior in networks: Random, Coherent, and Correlated. An organism such as a human body balances coherent motion (where parts are independently all doing the same thing) with correlated motion (when parts are specialized but interdependent) by grouping cells into tissues and organs which have different levels of coherence and independence. The correlations are distributed across different scales. The parts all work together, but there is some separation between them. It’s the body’s balance between random and ordered motion that allows it to be efficient and to continually adapt to its environment. Zoom out past the boundaries of an individual, and it’s our ability to cooperate and compete that allows the organism of society to flourish. The cool thing about complex systems is that this dance between ordered and chaotic behavior, between competition and cooperation, happens in all kinds of networks at multiple scales. The organization is just a social organism. Nature provides timeless frameworks.
“Who can you align with rather than who’s your competitor?”
A healthy network dialog uncovers connections that others aren’t thinking about, and that effect is cumulative. That’s how relationships are built and how information grows. When our boundaries are inflexible around verticals or silos or the area we’ve drawn our boundaries around is too small, the dialog shrinks and competitive advantage is stifled.
“It’s an old-fashioned mindset, this notion of competitors,” says Chris Lloyd, a corporate transformation expert who uses complex systems principles in her work with blue chip companies. “You have to look at the whole ecosystem, and who’s playing in that system, and who can add value. Who can you align with rather than who’s your competitor?”
Great leaders use purpose and values as the first layer of network structure.
If not purpose, then what? Purpose is the first opportunity for an organization to say “It’s not just about business.” (Purpose is really about what that business facilitates, or the challenge it’s trying to solve). Purpose is what my digital strategist friend, Jackie Allgayer, calls ‘the infinite requisite.’ It tends to have a fractal effect, from the individual to the culture, brand, and stakeholders. Designing your network with purpose and values as the first layer allows you to architect something that goes past the organization and embeds it within a community through shared values. And it’s good to be embedded within your community, because that’s how information flows.
Designing around purpose rather than objectives frees network energy for emergence. And I don’t mean ‘energy’ as in chakras or cosmic consciousness. I mean its scientific definition: the ability to do work. As The HP Way, and more recently, AI research, has modeled for us, a general purpose may be more crucial to unlocking the behaviors that lead to innovation than rigidly structuring around linear objectives. Often, it’s how you relate within your largest network of stakeholders — a form of search space — that leads to innovation. This is why organizational transformation can affect your organization’s whole ecosystem.
“Purpose is the first opportunity for an organization to say ‘It’s not just about business.’”
And finally, our ability to ‘compute’ effectively as and within a network means knowing the difference between marketing and MARCOM.
Marketing is your organization’s skin.
Marketing is the membrane between the organization’s internal and external realities. It’s the largest organ, both taking in and putting out information. Designed correctly, it’s as much about listening as talking, less like a factory than a nervous system. Hell, forget metaphors. To the leader-as-network-designer, marketing is not to be confused with MARCOM. It brings in continuous feedback from the outside world, as well as from other internal parts. It brings background conversations to the foreground. As strategist Billy Edwards, AMD’s former Chief Innovation Officer said, “Marketing’s true function is to synthesize the information your organization takes in, process it, uncover insights, and use that information to realign activities to purpose.” The closer you can get to actualizing your organization’s purpose through all of its business activities, the more authentic your network dialog becomes, and the more vital you become to your ecosystem — whatever you decide that to be.
In Issue 2 of design4emergence, we work with network scientists, CEOs and strategists to map out healthy network structures for jumpstarting innovation, transforming teams and organizations, gaining competitive advantage and solving global challenges.
Stacy Hale is Founding Editor of design4emergence and a generally curious person. She believes in teamwork as an evolutionary force.