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culture & change

In praise of redundancy: how fractal structures create adaptability and flexibility

Posted Friday, 31 January 2014 by Kristen Sukalac in culture & change, leadership & engagement

This is the second article in a series looking at biomimicry as a management approach.

We all want our organizations to be successful, but what does that really mean? Short-term revenue might be great, but what if you are bleeding talent and losing your ability to generate a profit in the future? What if the market around you is changing and rendering your products obsolete? What if demand for your services suddenly spikes and you are unable to cope? How do you ensure the long-term survival of your endeavour? The word “sustainability” speaks volumes about what companies should be striving for: how can we make sure our companies and our economy are resilient and adaptive enough to keep regenerating?

Biology provides exciting new insights into how to create and sustain vibrant organizations. Since the Age of Enlightenment, there has been a tendency for the human race to see itself as outside of "Nature". In recent decades, research has provided more and more insights into our very nature and into how we function as individuals, groups and societies and how we are connected to and interconnected with the natural world around us.

Want to learn more about how you can apply biomimicry to management? Read the first article in this series: "From cog in the wheel to superorganism".

Have hierarchies outlived their usefulness?

The combination of the economic crisis, a growing awareness of the need to improve the sustainability of human activities, and the rise of social media, among other factors, call into question whether traditional hierarchical organizations are suited for today's imperatives.

A major problem is how slack is embodied in hierarchical organizations: through redundancy of parts. In nature, redundancy of parts is familiar and necessary. For example, we can donate a kidney to a sick relative because Nature gave us a spare. Similarly, in a hierarchical organization, there are more people in the organization at any time than are needed. Jobs are broken down into specialist functions and then cloned to ensure that the organization can manage in peak times. This means you have multiple accountants, multiple secretaries, etc. The metaphor with machines is flagrant: each person is a cog, and it’s important to have spares in case one breaks and needs to be replaced.

The problem with cloning specialists

However, this type of redundancy poses a fundamental dilemma for the organization: inefficiency is built into the system in the form of duplication. The push for greater efficiency in recent years has led to reduction, if not elimination, of redundancy, but this has had perverse effects:

  • Specialization has divorced leadership and planning from operations. Decision-making is concentrated in the functions at the top of the hierarchy, yet the bulk of information naturally occurs at the bottom of pyramid.
  • The system generates friction between these parts, requiring formal control mechanisms, coordination and communication across the fragmented functions to lubricate the machine.
  • Many organizations have lost their “slack” as redundancy has decreased and therefore their ability to cope with periods of difficulty. If anything happens to any one worker, the problem ripples outward, creating bottlenecks, regardless of whether the incident is illness or simply that person being overloaded with multiple deadlines.
  • The extreme specialization of roles in this model has led to deskilling and physical and psychological problems such as repetitive strain injuries and burnout. As the number of redundant parts are eliminated, such problems have increased in number.

 redundancy easelly kes blogged
 [Click here to see a larger version of the diagram.]

How fractal redundancy can increase efficiency

In contrast, the alternate way to provide slack and flexibility is for people to have more skills than they can use at any one time. In a static view, people may seem to be overqualified, but in a dynamic view, this leads to a more efficient use of resources because each person uses different parts of their skill-set at different times and remains fully productive as tasks evolve, rather than needing to tap a specialist who is on stand-by.

Organizations built on this principle look very different from hierarchies: a series of self-organizing and self-managing teams are connected in a network that works towards shared goals. Each team is responsible for setting its own priorities and making sure it delivers as promised. Unlike the delegation of leadership seen in hierarchies, this model operates on the basis of distributed leadership, where leadership is considered a practice that any person or team may (and should) assume; not as a designated function.

This redundancy of functions resembles the fractal structures all around us. Fractal structures -- built from repeating patterns of struts and fibers that look the same at every magnification -- are stronger and lighter than their solid counterparts. The ever-repeating redundant patterns that compose them make each element less critical to the success of the whole. Damage to one part of the structure can be "contained". Teams composed of a variety of skill-sets will resemble each other when you’ve zoomed out (even though the various skill-sets may be distributed uniquely in each team).

Because they are a source of strength, resilience and flexibility (and because we think they’re beautiful!), you will find fractals throughout this website as a repeating visual element.

 

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