John and I were discussing login methods and he pointed out how there is often a lag of 2 seconds after entering your password before a website lets you in. “This reduces spamming,” he explained, although I didn’t get it at first. Most password hacking attempts are automated systems, running through bajillions of guesses to gain access. While a user might not notice a 2 second delay, an automated system that can make many hundreds of attempts per second is going to be seriously impeded by the timeshift –one attempt every 2 seconds instead of 1000 attempts every two seconds – that’s orders of magnitude of change, even with only a tiny noticeable shift for the user.
Reed Hastings famously published the Netflix Culture Deck, which was designed to help Netflix stay nimble like a startup and maintain the kind of business environment it deemed necessary for success. In it he shows the slide below, which depicts how complexity grows as size grows and it drives out the high performers. Now I’m at a larger organization where I’m charged with being nimble and start-upish, exploring all forms of innovation inside the company, and thinking deeply about these cautions.
In a start-up there are literally thousands of decisions and tasks to get done. Signing up for accounts. Coming up with names and logos. Hiring decisions. Product positioning. Many are simple red tape (filling out forms for an iTunes account) and some are mission critical (engineering specifications), but in all cases each decision is made and executed by just a few people who are in very close proximity and communication. The distances between the ISSUE, the decision MAKER and the decision EXECUTOR is tiny.
But with growth there are specialized teams for every task, and consequently every new decision moves to the experts. Regardless of whether you’re asking permission or simply giving notice, the decision has a longer path from stimulus to response. Like adding two seconds to a login, it’s reasonable that any single call is no big deal – but in aggregate the internal resistance changes the work from nimble to labored, and I suggest hampers the ability of the organism to compete in the marketplace and survive when the environment it was tuned for happens to be changing.
When you’re a one-celled animal, everything you need is right there, for better or worse. As you grow into a multicellular organism there is radical differentiation. The head and brain are way up there and the fingers are way over there…
But multicellular organisms can survive, obviously, they just maintain pathways to shortcut the infrastructure. Clearly company experts are there to keep the organization safe. In fact, much about that evolution was about improving the businesses ability to stay safe and efficient. But the cost is that the organization is no longer maximized to stay competitive.
In the human body there are a number of system shortcuts that keep us safe, but perhaps the best metaphor is the spinal reflex arc: a pin prick in your finger sends a signal to your spine which contracts the muscles in your arm to move your hand quickly. That signal did not have to go to your brain to get processed. (John also reminds me that large dinosaurs are reported to have developed a "hind brain" as unmyelinated nerves were too slow to adequately control such a large body...) For large organizations I believe that the best way to stay nimble to make sure there are systems in place that allow considerable self-governance, reflex arcs, hind brains, in key parts of the body.