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Principles of an emergent enterprise

In returning to my favoured topic of the moment (and a lengthy dissertation it’s proving to be) I’d like to give some ideas as to what I believe are the core principles of an emergent enterprise.


Ok, let’s start with some controversy. What’s wrong with total transparency? Why don’t organisations embrace it?

The issue is that most organisations don’t “trust” their workforce, particularly the “lower level” people. Why do we hire people we don’t trust?

If we do trust our people then why can’t we have open, honest debates about issues affecting them and the organisation? Inclusion all but guarantees support, or at least lessens opposition.

For example: The leaders of organisations strategise great things for the future then carry out elaborate “unveilings”. The problem with this approach is that you’ve immediately segregated your organisations into three groups of people. The people who pick up the vision and go with it, the people who could care a less and the people who oppose it. You’ve built opposition into the process towards the end.

If you invert this and invite everyone to collaborate on putting together the strategy we’ve not only increased the pool of clever people to contribute to it but we’ve built the handling of opposition into the entire process not just as something which happens at the end. We not only end up with advocates but we’ve converted the “couldn’t care less” crowd (who now, of course, care because they helped to create it) and more than likely elimitated or at least drastically reduced opposition.

Transparency builds advocacy. Opacity builds opposition.

Build a platform for open communication and collaboration (this is where you can use Enterprise 2.0 and Social Media to your advantage) and use it!

Rules, not Policies.

Policies are one of those things we need to protect ourselves from all of the bad things our workers can do to our organisation. Here’s the problem: they don’t work. In every single organisation I’ve worked for or with, I’ve observed the clever people disregarding, flaunting or downright fighting policies in order to do the “right thing” for the organisation in delivering what they need to deliver.

There is a difference between rules, which represent the contstraints of the environment and policies which represent proscriptions over what you can and can’t do. Sometimes policies exist to “enforce” rules but often they don’t.

Rules represent the environmental conditions and constraints. For example, in the natural world: Gravity pulls you down – This represents a rule which means if you want to jump high, you have to evolve better musculature to do so… or find another way around it. If instead of this rule, we had a policy which said: “Because gravity pulls you down, you must remain on the ground” then where would we be? We wouldn’t have Kangaroos, Birds, Planes… ok, so the example is contrived (and somewhat facetious) but you get the point.

Rules represent opportunities as well as constraints. The natural world has evolved many ways of getting around the “gravity pulls you down” rule… as many as you could possibly imagine and then some. If we aren’t proscriptive (or prescriptive) but instead identify the actual constraints of our environment we have the opportunity to evolve imaginative solutions to work around and through them.

Focus on Deliverables.

Processes weigh your organisation down. They’re a millstone around your neck.

The core reasons why they exist are threefold:

  1. They give an illusion of determinism as if by having mapped out the process we’ve ensured that nothing can go wrong.
  2. They give an illusion of control so that when things go wrong (and they do) we can point a finger at the person or thing which made a mistake and cast blame.
  3. They fool you into thinking they can provide metrics about the performance of your business. Except they don’t. Process metrics are another overhead with little value. Every time someone, or something has to stop to “measure” then that’s cost you time and money. Like Schrodingers Cat, the observation affects the outcome.

The only metric that matters is delivering whatever it is you deliver. Everything else is overhead. Identify the things which you need to deliver and focus your organisation on delivering them. Everything else is fair game to be evolved out of your organisation.

Inversion of power.

This is self-evident to me and perhaps it is to you too (in which case apologies for preaching to the converted) but the most appropriate person to make decisions about something is the person in possession of the most complete knowledge of it.

In most organisations (in my experience) this is rarely someone “up the chain of command” but the people “at the coal face”. Instead of disenfranchising our workforce we should be empowering them with decision making authority and responsibility. As I’ve pointed out before, we’ve hired them for exactly that reason and because they’re going to do the “right thing” according to the alignment of their values and beliefs with the rest of the organisation.

Why then do we invert our power structures and have the decision making as a top-down? Empower our clever people with the right to make decisions. We don’t need to have the illusions of control which top-down decision making promotes because we’re going to be totally transparent so if the wrong decision is made the entire organisation can pick up on it and fix the mistake (and learn from it and evolve as a consequence)

Embrace Mistakes.

Mistakes happen and contrary to a great deal of opinion, mistakes are good. They’re good because they open up opportunities for learning, improvement and troubleshooting.

It’s a very human instinct to want to “cover up” our mistakes which we make as individuals and the essential character of most organisations reflects this desire of it’s human workforce.

Organisations never want to admit to failure particularly in situations where reputation is at stake but this is actually counter-intuitive. Sure mistakes cost money, time, perhaps reputation but you know what? They’re going to happen anyway. If you try to hide from them, they’re going to bite you in the ass. Embrace and learn from them.

See your mistakes as opportunities to  grow your business and improve it. When mistakes happen they need to be transparent to everyone involved so that we have the opportunity to immediately iterate and evolve in order to avoid it in the future. Emergent behaviour will ensure that with full knowledge of what’s happened and an environment that encourages introspection and improvement, those mistakes don’t happen again.

This is why modern Enterprise 2.0/Social Media tools are vital to 21st century business. They open up this immediate collaboration and feedback loop and encourage everyone to take part in improving the organisation immediately when something goes wrong.

Hire People, not Human Resources.

Maybe this is self evident but we hire people, not resources. Resources are nice and clean and deterministic in their behaviours but the actual people we hire are not. They are, each and every one, unique, perfect and flawed.

Making the mistake of assuming that simply adding a dehumanising moniker (ironic that it uses the word “Human” in there) doesn’t actually stop your human resources from being human, it just fosters the illusion that they are as fixed and constant as, for example, “computing resources”. This view is not only flawed because it fails to account for peoples frailties and needs but it also places a box around people which means that you’re never going to get the best from them.

Hire people. Treat them as people. Empower and motivate them as people. Give them the power to drive your business rather than dragging them along behind you. You may be surprised at the results.

Make it up as you go along.

Final principle: There are no hard and fast principles (or rules). Clever people, with all the facts and a full awareness of what needs to be done will find a way to do it. The trick in an emergent enterprise is to keep doing it again and again with continuous, iterative improvement and evolution as the core (only?) processes in operation.

Do what feels right. Break the rules, ignore the environmental constraints and do something new.

As you can no doubt tell, I’ve left out as much above as I’ve written (and then some) but I’m hoping you (clever person) will fill in the gaps for yourself.

Feel free to offer up your own ideas, opinions, critiques and comments. I’m interested in learning how other people think about these things.