Emergence works best when it’s planned

In a moment of energetic ambition (or, maybe it was a lapse of judgement) I proposed a talk for the upcoming Velocity conference in New York. DevOps, and operations in general, isn’t my usual haunt, but I felt inspired to try to place DevOps into a bigger picture – an environmental context in which large organizations are changing dramatically with the diffusion of information age technologies.

I’ll say right up front that my thinking on this topic remains inchoate and incomplete. I don’t have a theory to promote. The talk, like this blog, is me thinking out loud.

One of the books that I’ve been re-reading lately is Science, Strategy and War; The strategic theory of John Boyd. Boyd is the originator of the OODA loop, perhaps the only term as haphazardly applied to business as Lean. But what the book is reminding me is that Boyd’s lectures weren’t just discussions of his theories, they were also expositions of his journey to them. He didn’t just want his audience to understand “fast transients” and the OODA loop, he wanted them to understand what he read and what he thought about to arrive there. In a sense Boyd was less a theorist, and more of a curator and synthesizer of an extensive reading list that ranged well outside the expected corpus of military strategic theory.

Thomas Osinga, the book’s author, points out that strategic theorists like Boyd live in a world with Godel-like constraints. Dealing with the complexity of war, society, and politics, their theories are by necessity incomplete. Theories of war are no better than theories of next week’s weather. However, like Eisenhower’s plans, even flawed and incomplete theories of war can still be useful, as is the intellectual development that leads to them. They prepare the mind to react to complex stimuli either intuitively, or consciously but faster.

Theories about business are like this too. Business also operates at an intersection of complex processes, psychology, society and evolving technologies. Which is why, with Boyd as an example, I’m comfortable pointing out well-sources of ideas that seem applicable, attempting some synthesis, and thinking about the connections out loud. I’m not claiming theoretical completeness or anything like it, I’m simply pointing out things that have made me say “huh.” 

The problem is that now that I’m trying to write the talk, I’m stalling out in an endless loop of “If still ambiguous, go more meta.” Before I get so meta that I can’t see that the turtle at the top of the pile way down there, I figured I’d just try to write down a few things for this blog. If reductionism is the pursuit of “turtles all the way down,” my project is rapidly turning into a kind of expansionist “it’s meta all the way up.” I’m hoping that writing a little bit out it will force me to get concrete and slow that process.

In the last few years I’ve done a bunch of talks on “Corporate Evolution” and “Intentional Emergence.” What all of them share is an exploration of the challenges large organizations face as their environment becomes more networked and more complex. Most of them also explore the ways in which the emergence of the web can be applied to more traditional enterprise. Put another way, the information age is forcing bureaucracies of all kinds to transition. Finally. From a kind of feudalism to a post-modern post-bureaucratic form. One that is prepared for the complexity of a networked world, and that takes full advantage of its own networked body.

Corporations have always (or for a long time at least) operated in an environment with emergent properties. Price in a marketplace is an emergent phenomena after all. But what I’m talking about here is a recognition in corporate settings that the reductionist notions of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and planning are inadequate to many modern situations. The degree of connectedness and complexity is simply too much for the lazily looping feedback systems of bureaucracy to cope. Go through the loop faster is a poor (and impossible) prescription when the loop spans such wide swaths of corporate cruft.

As corporations become more internally wired shadow organizations emerge. The official org chart tells less and less of the reality on the ground. The idea of intentional emergence is to recognize this self-adaptation as a positive (rather than treat it as a cancer) and create policies that make emergence of unplanned organizations and organizational behaviors more likely. DevOps, Lean, and other tools of agility have a role here in tightening feedback loops and, by creating small cells of activity, making a fertile organizational substrate for emergent teaming.

Paradoxically, emergence in the corporate setting works best when it’s planned.

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