Managers as Curators

The dilemma of a fast growing company is one that needs little introduction. To grow is to add more of everything. More people. More projects. More customers. More money.

What is not clear to me is whether there must, and always will be, more layers. More hierarchy. More planning. More meetings. More stress.

Undoubtedly, to grow is to add complexity. If there are more moving parts then there more possible results from every action (and inaction). So much so that you cannot take all of them in to account with every decision, and some decisions will have unexpected outcomes. However some of these other items seem debatable. In fact, more than debatable. I think they naturally arise as a product of inertia rather than from any real management decision-making.

The core premise of Steven Johnson’s excellent “Future Perfect” book has been rattling around my head recently, which this quote nicely summarizes:

Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange

This quote broadly describes and accepts two fundamental points. Firstly that networks, not hierarchies, are the way to go. Secondly that the real intellectual horsepower in a company or any organization of people exists in the corners and at the edges of the network. The history of humanity is replete with examples of figureheads who drove through their vision despite the doubters, and so seeming to nullifying this second point. But I would counter that no person works in a bubble and there are no examples of these figureheads working alone. Always they are surrounded by a network or networks, small or large, that significantly help shape the vision. What the figurehead does is show great determination and foresight in seeing something through to the end. Either that or they are stubborn and lucky. The result is the same.

So what is being discussed here is not a suggestion we all pack up and move in to a small commune of common ideals, with no management and no leaders. I believe that strong or visionary managers and leaders can be a positive not negative force. Instead, I propose that we embrace the power of the networks as a management technique. By pushing sufficient power to the edges management can then act as a guide for the networks focus by defining the constraints within which the network operates. By constraints I mean defining what problems need to be solved and, most importantly, why. Networks are messy and noisy. Embracing it and letting the power of emergent and self-organizing behavior thrive is the opening chapter, but not the full story. It should be directed emergent behavior. How much direction is needed will be network specific, but leaders can be used to think at a broader level of abstraction than the more near-term parameters within which those in the trenches are normally restricted. Managers and leaders work to ground those problems and projects in a broader strategic context. Leadership in this sense doesn’t have to mean hierarchical oversight.

Importantly, there should not be just one big network either. There should be multiple overlapping networks, with all the hidden layers and complexity that comes with it. As Johnson says:

the power of the system comes not just from the individual peer networks, but from the way the different networks layer on top of one another.

So think of the managers and leaders as a network incorporated within lots of other networks that are self-organizing and collaborating around problems, topics, projects and interests. The information flow between the management network(s) and the others should be bi-directional. They need to feed equally off of one another. The managers must fold-in information from the internal networks as much as they do their own personal beliefs, opinions of other managers, actions by competitors and trends in the market.

This is how management changes from a job of hierarchical oversight in to that of being the teacher, the pupil, the scientist and the curator at the same time. The same statement applies in-fact to every member of all the networks. The only difference may be that their perspectives are either primarily tactical or strategic. The networks must be recursive in structure, meaning they are identical at all levels. Because I strongly believe that the Small can and must still exist within the Large.

So to reel this back in to the fast growing company issues, lets translate those initial problems using this idea of networks and managers as curators:

More people = More networks
More layers & hierarchy = Layers of networks not hierarchical oversight
More planning = Empowering the network to deliver what is best within strategic constraints
More meetings = More collaboration. If that means more meetings then fine.
More money = More money and more fulfillment from making that money

To lead in today’s societies or companies is not to construct a plan and get buy-in from below. Instead it is to be a scientist (think peer reviews and empirical evidence) and a curator. To promote network style collaboration and openly hypothesize to those networks on strategies, possibilities, scenarios and challenges. To then comb through the resulting cacophony of information for themes and threads that form the solid basis of what to do next and letting that inform what should be the next project to tackle.

This I believe can help enable companies to grow fast and grow happy.