Illusion of organizational control

The other day I started to read “Emergence” by my new favorite author Steven Johnson. Since I was very interested in complexity and emergence from a philosophy perspective first in the 80:s and then again in the 90:s it is a bit funny to revisit an area which seems to slowly picking up speed.

As expected Johnson is picking good illustrative examples which he is weaving his story around. This time I slowed down around the standard example of complexity and emergence e g ants and the ant colony. Most intelligent people seem to accept the similarities between ants and humans when it comes to cities and other agent based organizations where individual agents are allowed to take their own decisions. It is just a matter of scaling, zooming and adding the time dimension. Computer scientists who are in charge of the “macroscope” are the masters of this trade. See e g what NewScientist reported the other day about researchers at GeorgiaTech and Microsoft who developed a 4D model of a city to visualize these emergent properties which is usually invisible to the individual.

But what about traditional hierarchic organizations? (I think Johnson is touching too briefly on this in his book…)

I see the modern and future knowledge worker, who is equipped with new communication technology, working in an environment with increasing complexity and having a different view on authority is changing hierarchical organizations to become increasingly more like cities (ant colonies) than machines. In practice the modern organization inhabitant is deconstructing the organization from inside simply by following his or her own mind rather than obsolete process directions. Gradually the organization is becoming something else, and maybe without anyone noticing the change.

Maybe it even have changed from what we traditionally call an organization to a continuous process of organizing? Do you really know what state your organization are in right now? Answer these questions for your organization and try to assess the the level of emergence in your organization:

  • To what extent is your CEO/President/Chariman similar to an ant queen? – does the CEO have similar important function for the existence of the colony/company but is completely disconnected and irrelevant in day to day activity?
  • To what extent are your organization’s properties (e g the strengths from the SWOT analysis) emerging from individual actions? – and what can be attributed to conscious design decisions?
  • To what extent do deliberately designed feedback loops make you adjust your behavior? – or do you change your behavior according to your own conclusions from small signals from you colleagues, customers, the media or from other observations you do.


Think then what it would be like if your management team actually understood the level of emergent behavior in your organization. What would change? And would happen if the management board did acknowledge that?

My guess is: probably nothing in traditional organizations. Not in this paradigm, but maybe in the next Kuhnian paradigm shift. It simply breaks the basic law that the illusion of control is the last thing we will let go of.

I think one of our major future challenges is to understand and embrace what is really happening as a direct consequence of our connected society and really understand the consequences for our traditional organizational structures. Often when we face large problems like e g global warming, international terrorism or a threat of a pandemic flu we gather top individuals (usually from an hierarchic perspective) and then appoint responsibility to whole organizations through their respective top representatives. I think that we 50 years from now will look back and wonder how we could be so naïve and not recognize the decline in organizational capabilities.

It could be the case that our irrational belief in the capability of traditional organizational structures is the major obstacle in our efforts to solve what we believe to be the most important problems. I can see a future where this inability will be the major underlying source for conflict and war.

4 thoughts on “Illusion of organizational control

  1. I may be really showing my ignorance by saying this, but I’d love to see more discussion of the alternative paradigm. What exactly is the paradigm that organizations should embrace? Do I need to read Johnson’s book to find out? (I read _Mind Wide Open_, but not _Emergence_ yet.)

  2. It is a really good question. No, I don’t think reading Emergence will help you in this case. As I see it now there are only two working models in the future if you are not going to pursue violence on the people working for you, which in the end seems to be a bad idea anywhay. If it really is about a commercial enterprise with cost limits and time-to-market requirements there are probably just one.

    1) Using the hive-mind, build an infrastructure just set the boarders because you are probably not able to set any rigid objectives and expect somebody to meet them the way you expect. This way you changed paradigm to an “Open Source” model where the innovation levels could be great of things turns out well. But you don’t know.

    2) Have an organization with a really small number of individuals which you can control. You then end up with an organizations consisting of max 30 persons. Thus small organization will have commercial relations with suppliers, production facilities, distribution companies et al which you pay after delivered and quality assured results. In this case all organizational control have changed into a contractual network och small players with their own responsibility. This is not unlike how movie projects and building projects are being run.

    All other forms of organizations will step by step gravitate towards one of these two models anyway.

  3. Martin,

    I enjoyed that comment about pursuing violence on your employees, cracked me up.

    I do like the concept of setting borders but no real rigid objectives. However, if you do not have objectives, how can you define your goals?

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