Transformation has a Half-Life

Your future may be shorter or longer than you think but it’s here.

Most organisations now understand the Internet is a thing. Not all organisations understand this means their thing is going to change.

Photo by Austin Chan

The Internet arrived for the early majority in the mid 90s. I remember being introduced to email around 1994. In those days Gopher and Telnet were still meaningful things, and the squeak-crackle-and-pop of modems hadn’t yet reached most households.

By the late 90s, a computer on every desk in the office became a reality and the likes of Freeserve and AOL brought that technology home. Yahoo’s hierarchical directory of every website on the Internet quickly became a lost cause as the scale and power of this brave new decentralised world became apparent — one where anyone with access to a computer had the potential reach a global audience.

From there, the march of technology and the pace of change has seemed relentless, yet the scale and totality of the change is perhaps not as surprising or confusing as it might seem. The clue may be in that word decentralisation. Let’s unpack that a little.

Turning the world upside down

What enabled decentralisation? Lower fixed costs. In a world where the cost of building an organisation with a global reach was extremely high, you had to be a massive player, with deep pockets and big operations, built up over decades. Few organisations reached this scale, so new entrants were rare. There was plenty of time to spot a challenger and either buy them out, or derail their operations to preserve the status quo.

This environment created a stable world that favoured large-scale organisms.

A stable environment meant that disruption was rare and that optimising operations for low cost was the route to success. Since disruption was rare, pace could rightly be slow, which meant best practice could evolve and remain relevant for extended periods. The rate of change was on a generational scale. If you followed in the boss’s footsteps you’d probably be fine until you retired.

That’s a world where centralisation works. The pace and scale is small enough that the centre can hold and can fend off change through sheer power and inertia.

Small is the new big

The internet, however, embodies the idea of decentralisation. Collapsing fixed costs means (at the risk of invoking a cliche) that “any kid with a smartphone can make a movie”. The elephant of fear hiding behind this dismissive statement is that talent no longer needs to work for you.

Decades invested in building castles of scale, walled gardens of power that allowed a few large players to extract phenomenal value in return for access to their their dominant positions, are evaporating faster than the polar ice caps.

To illustrate this, consider the rise of, and response to, illegal music and movie downloads. A vast, decentralised global network. The response of big players was, true to their past, using power and position to eradicate the threat. Unfortunately, whilst power can overwhelm smaller prey, it’s useless against a swarm of insects. The world has changed and these giants struggle to remain relevant, whilst newer players have crossed the digital chasm and set up streaming services to meet demand.

This may also be why so many smart people — I’m thinking of bright tech talent — choose to work for startups and small organisations. There’s no need to board someone else’s 747 for the sake of some free peanuts. Your own drones can do far more interesting things. Whilst big organisations try to attract millennials, they may be looking at the wrong problem. What if big is the problem?

The Internet mindset

The internet didn’t self-create. It was, and continues to be, a product of the evolving mindsets of the people who create it. “The geeks shall inherit the earth”? Maybe, but the minds and hearts that build our digital world shape it. Consciously or unconsciously, the state of the art reflects the artists and, notable examples aside, there are some fundamentally human values in there.

One of those is decentralisation. Finding that too often good work happens in spite of the best efforts of an organisation to manage it, people move out and, though life is no less hard, it’s now hard for good reasons — real reasons. And so a generation has collectively built a world that bypasses the often creativity-crushing, life-stifling insular and distorting worlds of big, complex, centralised organisations.

I have an idea — and it’s probably not my idea — that the social contract that built the old world is irreparably broken. In that world, where jobs were for life not just for Christmas, where institutions lasted generations not quarters, it made rational sense to trade your life and fealty for a secure final salary pension. But jobs got shorter, futures more unstable and pensions altogether pitiful.

If you view the individual as a business, then a business with a single large customer (i.e. the employer) is a risky strategy. When that customer is unlikely to be a long-term source of recurring revenue it’s natural for the world to shift from monolithic centres to decentralised networks of multiple connections.

Scaling up complexity

Another way to look at what’s happening is to think about complexity. Frederic Laloux makes a strikingly simple point that “all truly complex systems that exist in the world today operate with mechanisms more powerful than hierarchy”.

The more complex the system, the less a pyramid structure can deal with that complexity at any meaningful pace, and the sharper the need to decentralise.

He goes on to talk about the global economy — a fully decentralised, highly complex system. Consider biological cells, traffic flows, forests, society, the human brain and the Internet. Structured, yes, (self)regulated, yes, but fundamentally decentralised.

When it comes to “doing agile” (which is different from “being agile”) there’s lots of talk about scaling it up, at best with ambitions of increasing speed of delivery and responsiveness to change, at worst because it’s seen as fashionable fig-leaf for waterfall where the organising mindset is not yet able to grasp that pre-planning a future route through a shifting landscape is a great way to drive off a cliff.

Perhaps the real question is not how to scale up agile, but how to scale down your unit of dependency — to create a collective network of autonomous units with decision-making power. Perhaps the real answer to the question of how to improve pace and responsiveness is that a large centralised system requires information and decision making to pass through too many layers — layers often so removed from the decision as to not be able to add meaningful value to it. A complex organisation run by command-and-control will never be able to respond at pace. One made up of a network of independent units will consistently outmanoeuvre it.

Half-life

Whatever your views on why the Internet is a thing, if your organisation is over 20 years old and hasn’t yet been turned inside out and upside down (“transformed”, right?) the sign you’re looking for is quite simply that you’re comfortable, or even uncomfortable, but that you haven’t yet had to fight to reinvent your own world. It’s only a matter of time — a half-life. The writing is on the wall and you’re probably on the wrong side of history.

Perhaps more accurate than “evolve or die” is “break or decay”.

There’s not going to be a middle ground. It’s a different world, with different rules and different “right answers”. You can hold fast to a sinking ship or jump into the water. When the world is already teeming with an panoply of small, warm-blooded organisms, sooner or later the big reptiles will disappear.

Ask not for whom the Digital bell tolls. If you feel like you’re holding on and life keeps getting harder, like paddling upstream, it may be time to listen to that feedback. The beliefs that made things workable in the past are no longer helpful. They’re probably harmful. It’s time to let them go. The brave new world will seem unrecognisable at first, but pretty quickly you’ll realise it’s not actually that foreign — and soon it feels like paddling downstream.

Sometimes holding it together is worse than taking it apart.

Written by

Hands-on culture and techology. Work hard be kind. Chief Engineer and head geek at Foundry4 (https://foundry4.com)

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