Rethinking Dynamism

The truth about most organizations, especially the big ones, is that they're structurally quite fast-moving and dynamic.

I'm a few months into my time here at a Real Company (R/GA), and I'm starting to look at organizations through a different lens.

For most of my career, I've worked at sub-100-person organizations. Small, lightweight, generally fast-moving organizations, especially compared to our customers – most of whom were (are!) orders of magnitude larger, both in revenue and in population. My view of my clients, and of large organizations in general, was close to what I believe the consensus is on "organizations these days": they're slow-moving and hard-to-change, and their structure deserves a significant amount of blame.

I'm not so sure the structure is the thing to blame.

The truth about most organizations, especially the big ones, is that they're structurally quite fast-moving and dynamic. The video above was introduced to me by Emmy-Lou and Ben Hamley, who I met on their travels to NYC late last year, and comes from Autodesk research into their own org chart. Each node is an employee, and you'll note a near-constant state of change as you track the movement of direct reports (the CEO is in the center) from 2007 to 2011. Yes, this is an old video, but I hadn't seen nor heard of it until now. Shame.

OrgOrgChart: The Evolution of an Organization | Autodesk Research
The OrgOrgChart (Organic Organization Chart) project looks at the evolution of a company’s structure over time. A snapshot of the Autodesk organizational hierarchy was taken each day between May 2007 and June 2011, a span of 1498 days.

Now, Autodesk is a software company: since they ship bits, not atoms, change is easier as there's no factory to turn on or off, or inventory that needs managing. But they're a big-ish (>7,000 people), public company too.

With this in mind, it's worth reflecting on a few promises that are coded into the practices, methods, and designs that come with newer ways of organizing and working:

  1. We'll work faster and get more done
  2. We'll change more frequently than we have in the past
  3. We'll knowingly introduce or accept a higher level of uncertainty into our work

While it's true that in formal stakeholder interviews and hushed canteen conversations alike, I've heard employees at every level and at every client tell me they desperately want these things, the felt experience in most cases is an explosion of more – we're asking folks to juggle on quicksand, mistaking it for solid ground. We've all gotten pretty good at helping folks pull off this impossible task, but I think we've got to find ways to peel work out and find stability (or at least accurately assess the situation) before intervening.

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