Transforming OurSpace Using Thinker's Thoughts
June 2008 - Shel Rovin



Nature builds (complexity) from the bottom up through self organization, not top down as in an organizational hierarchy.

All individuals are colonies of smaller individuals (cells) which are made up of non-living bits.  These smaller bits were the first to develop in our evolutionary history-they slowly incorporated themselves into cells which then later became multicellular organisms.  Our ancestors were microscopic, wriggling creatures similar to what we now call bacteria and their ancestors were bits of self-replicating molecules.

Before a single plant or animal appeared on the planet bacteria invented all of life’s essential chemical systems. They transformed the earth’s atmosphere,      developed a way to get energy from the sun, developed the first bioelectric systems, invented sex and locomotion, worked out our genetic machinery, and learned how to merge and organize into higher collectives.  For example, the development of the eye, a highly complex structure, required the prior development of photoreceptor cells, an optic nerve, a transparent lens and a cornea.

The world was built to function from the bottom up but organizations were and are built to function from the top down. Complexity has to be grown, it can’t be installed to be workable.  All successful large organizations once were successful smaller or simpler organizations.  The only way to make a large system that works is to begin with a simple system that works.  Workable complexity doesn’t start from the top.  It grows or is developed by building it  from simple modules that can function independently, or as Kevin Kelly calls it in his seminal 1994 book, “Out of Control,” chunking.

This has serious implications for leadership.  The great majority of organizations are not designed to enable bottom up development of complexity. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, most organizations function top down. Complexity in these organizations is not grown, it is imposed from on high. Such organiztions are over managed, over assigned, over supervised and over led, all of which leads to more unnecessary work, dissatisfaction and poor results. 

The lesson here is to keep top down leadership to the minimum. More is not needed and only gets in the way. Importantly, leaders exist throughout an organization.  Top leadership should think about getting out of their way and letting them lead.  This is one way to manage complexity effectively.

What do you think?