From Structures to Nets – Leadership in the Shift Age
The vast majority of companies today have management structures or reporting hierarchies. That simply is the way it has been, at least since the beginning of the Industrial Age a bit more than 200 years ago.
When humanity moved from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age, we moved from family farms and businesses and apprenticeships to bigger companies. At the time the only existing model for large-scale management was the military. A General at the top and officer levels below them. This was imported into the rapidly scaling, centralizing businesses of the Industrial Age. This new age ushered in the concept of a job, the development of management, and then, of course, management theory.
In the Information Age, loosely started in the 1970s, and in the decades since, middle management has been eviscerated and the corporation became “flat”, and we had the “flattening of the corporation” in management speak. Today, though much leaner, companies still have reporting structures. The CEO usually has an EVP or a couple of SVPs or a number of VPs reporting to her. They in turn have Directors who report to them. These Directors usually run departments, which in turn have Managers. Vertical hierarchies.
This verticality matched the symbols of the 20th century, high rises and skyscrapers. Within these verticals were cubicles, window offices and the sought after corner office. These White Collar organizations were a few steps above the hierarchies and structures of the mass production factories that ushered in the Industrial Age.
Nets have nodes. These nodes are key intersections or aggregates of knowledge and expertise, as departments used to be in the structured world. Think of your departments as nodes of a net.
If the metaphor for the 20th century was the tall building, the metaphor of the 21st century is the Net. We have gone from a vertical world to a flat world, from a hierarchical world to a networked world.
It is now time to bring the Net metaphor into the way to look at how a company is organized. Nets have nodes. These nodes are key intersections or aggregates of knowledge and expertise, as departments used to be in the structured world. Think of your departments as nodes of a net. There is the marketing node, the R&D node, the Finance node, the Sales node and at the center, not at the top, of the net is the CEO or leadership node. All information or traffic can flow through this node or around it to other nodes if the CEO node is not needed.
We now know that information moves much more quickly across a net than up and down through silos within hierarchies. That is why bureaucracies move so slowly. They are rigid structures that have become dysfunctional. Networked, flat organizations can move quickly, can share data and information at the speed of light across the entire net in a matter of minutes. Depending on the market situation, the “traffic” of discussions and problem solving between any two or three nodes of the company Net can become fast, full, interactive and decisive. Only the nodal areas of expertise need to interact, perhaps including the CEO or Leadership node, thereby not including all managers at certain levels or all departments. Information can be stored and shared as needed between nodes of the company net.
In times of transformative change such as now in the Transformation Decade, resilience and speed are absolutely essential. The rigid and deliberate will lose. The fast and responsive will win.
Nets are inherently more resilient than structures. Think of firing a bazooka at a structure. It will cause damage. Think of firing that same bazooka at a strong net. The net would absorb the physics of the bazooka shell, and stop the shell without damage. Think of how a jet fighter plane lands on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Within 40-50 yards the planes forward motion has been completely absorbed in the net, which greets it and then it is towed away.
In times of transformative change such as now in the Transformation Decade, resilience and speed are absolutely essential. The rigid and deliberate will lose. The fast and responsive will win. It is time to rethink the shape of the entity you lead. Lead from the center node of a net, not the top of a structure. Power now comes not from turf but from the ability to live with and lead in a constant state of change.
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