Darth Vader or Dragons? Leadership in the Networked Age
This diagram was drawn by Paul Baran and his team at the Rand Corporation in the mid 1960′s. It was used to illustrate the idea of a communications system that would survive in the case of damage from a nuclear war. This diagram and the resultant technology became the architecture of the internet as we know it today.
There is more to the story of course but what fascinates me about this image is the number of times I have seen it in business books and articles recently. The diagram on the left is the old centralized business organization. The diagram in the middle easily represents the bulk of businesses today as they try to flatten their organizations in order to become more responsive. The diagram on the right is where future opportunities lie. With competition coming from unforeseen directions (really….did Ford ever anticipate that Google would develop a driverless car and become their competition?), the war for talent allowing the best employees to call the shots in terms of when and where to work, and the speed of technological change, organizations in the networked age have to be able to continue to operate and respond, even if one node goes down. In that light, this diagram of organizational structure is a fantastic idea.
But here is the problem, this kind of structure is constantly morphing. Customers are coming from all directions. Competition is coming from all directions. Employees are doing what they want when they want. The whole thing is the proverbial herding cats! So how do you lead in that environment?
I was watching my 5 year old play with a friend. They were playing Starwars light saber sword fighting but his faster friend kept running away. Then the bossy one (mine) decided that the rules were that you couldn’t run. Then mom (me) interjected that another rule was no hitting of light saber against each other but only light saber to light saber. Then the bossy one (mine again) decided that was boring so they weren’t light sabers they were dragon swords and the dogs were the dragons…and on and on. This constant redefinition of the game, the rules, the playing field, and the definition of “winning” was fascinating to watch. It occurred to me that the leader of an organization with a truly flat network structure has to do the same thing. They have to keep watching the future and reinventing the game in a way that allows their organization to win. They have to make sure that all of their players are crystal clear about the goals and rules on that specific day. They have to define the game and then announce it over and over again to all who are playing. My son was doing it, so at some level it is actually just returning to child’s play. Now we are fighting Darth Vader and now we are fighting Dragons. Gird yourself accordingly.