Walls: A Pattern for Healthy Organizations


There are a limited set of life-creating patterns that must be followed for systems and the people within them to thrive.

One of these patterns is walls, without which it is impossible to maintain the complex relational harmony among successive internal layers.

In an ecosystem, an organism, a cell, a building design, or an org structure, there are smaller, more nuanced and specific groups the further down you go. Groups are formed and hold together by distinct delineations (walls) of where one ends and another begins. 

This is a continuation of a previous post in which I touched on how cells retain a distinct membrane of separation to limit the kinds and levels of interaction that can take place between the internal and external environments.

Utility of Walls

In a healthy cell, the necessary and beneficial ingredients needed for their function are kept in, while useless or harmful stuff is kept out. The term for this is selective permeability.

Cell membranes keep stuff that is too big from entering the cell.  That is to say, an effective team doesn’t intake a resource, function or responsibility that exceeds its size. The membrane also regulates frequency. How often do we fail to standardize and control what comes in and out of our business units?

Not only that, cells contain channels and transporters that actually have fairly specific molecules they are designed to pass in and out of the cell. If you can’t do it well or you are not “shaped” to take on the task, decline emphatically.  If you are ideally designed for the job, stop at nothing until you get it.

Aligning scope/scale/frequency and core competencies with inputs and outputs are the essential decision points for any healthy cell establishing its role within a system. Agility is impossible without this level of focused selection.

But so far I’ve mostly pointed out the utility of the cell membrane. The cell is only in the crudest sense like a machine.  Let’s not forget: machines imitate cells, not the other way around. By my analogy of the cell I am actually suggesting something much deeper than controlled systems.

Life Creating Properties of Walls

The cell membrane also creates a local environment for direct and rapid exchange.  Even in a business context, this is more than just the passage of information.

Having a defined functional, structural, financial, cultural and even spatially defined limit to your team is a critical pre-condition to feeling psychologically oriented as individuals and united as a group.

This directly impacts our motivation, focus and outputs. Place matters and the organization as a whole must support and respect these boundaries, giving teams the right to keep out inactionable meetings, unfocused conference calls, irrelevant metrics, wasteful spending, rabbit trails, meaningless corporate speak, bureaucratic sloth, pet projects and so on.

My central observation is that, for a group of individuals to produce life, to create a sort of musical harmony, to create unique and irreducibly complex instances of life, they absolutely must be selective, located, centered, protected, walled in.  

In one post I can’t possibly exhaust the analogy, but I hope I’ve touched on some aspects that invite your imagination. This post is more a scratch pad of clustered observations.

If you are intrigued as I am with the magic that happens with life is allowed to flourish at a small scale within a broader system, consider strong emergence theory in this context for future reflection on the magic of protecting teams. Christopher Alexander elaborates on the application of boundaries, walls, transition areas and centers to designing cities, building, homes and all sorts of spaces in A Pattern Language. It’s quite a fascinating work.

Lychnaspis Miranda; one of Haeckel’s incredible drawings of Radiolaria.

Yes, Philosophy is Practical.


The single most common question I get about my choice to study Philosophy is whether it is practical: “What do you do with that?”

My answer is – EVERYTHING.

Philosophy is a tool, but more than that, it is a more deliberate and deliberative way of using other mental faculties.

What exactly does Philosophy offer us?

  • Philosophy guides, organizes and disciplines our curiosity
  • Philosophy prompts us to ask about the nature of our world and how things work
  • Philosophy exposes our subjective bias and protects us from making hasty decisions
  • Philosophy helps us become more virtuous people (we need all the help we can get)
  • Philosophy trains us to constantly ask, “How could I approach this differently and do it better?”

With such obvious benefits, how could we not all choose to pursue Philosophy at some level?

Yes, there are those who think that perpetually playing the devil’s advocate and making snarky remarks is what philosophy is really about. There is no love of wisdom in that.

Real philosophy gets stuff done.

Organic Growth: A Lesson from Nature


The behavior of cells provides a pattern for organizational growth that is, as far as I can tell, unrivaled.

When a cell reaches a certain size, it naturally splits in two. There are no meetings, no bureaucratic stages of approval. The brain does not need to sign off on the activity of cell division.

Yet, despite this split, the synergy between cells remains in tact
. Tissues form through a common structure, composition and function, just like teams within an organization.

And this synergy extends beyond tissues. Regardless of how much cells split and multiply, they coordinate to form organs and organs in turn harmonize with one another to form systems.

Despite the complex relational harmony of the cell with its neighbors, it retains a distinct cell membrane of separation to limit the kinds and levels of interaction that can take place between the internal and external environments.

We need more teams that imitate animal cells. We should strive to imitate their delicate balance of preserving the distinctness of the parts with the unity of the whole.

Without walls providing a degree of insulation, we lose drive, team camaraderie, focus, and that distinct inertia that happens when collaboration is free to happen through face-to-face personal relationships.

With such a balance in the internal hierarchy of cell life, it's no wonder we see such incredible examples of delicate order and spontaneity in nature. See more drawings from Haeckel: http://bit.ly/HaeckelFlickr

*Most of the ideas expressed in this post are probably not original. I am not aware of any commentary on the significance of the cell membrane and its analogical application to organizations. I owe Richard Nutley thanks and credit for drawing my attention to the importance of cities with walls. Christopher Alexander has pointed out the significance in architectural design of barriers and transition areas in A Pattern Language

Iterative Genius


Genius comes through gradual, focused iterations.  It is not necessarily a static property. Genius is in motion.

Like all virtues, genius is achieved through constant practice.  It is simply the optimizing of our capacity of discovery and experimentation through a set of habits.

Scientific method looks at the bare process of genius-like behavior, yet is too cold to capture the human quality that makes this process alive.

In addition to a scientific method, perhaps we need a scientific ethos to invigorate our cold dehumanizing modern approach to genius.

Curiosity, focus, persistence, honesty, thoroughness and even a love for beauty – these are the habits that distinguish a genius from a mere technical expert or mad scientist.

Once we have recast the way of the genius in a more familiar light, we can begin to see the psychological imperative of cultivating gradual, iterative genius.

Don’t Make Me Think (Because I Can’t) – Stanford Study


The aesthetic case for simplicity in designing user experiences is the kind of argument you don’t even need to make.  It’s like trying to come up with reasons for maintaining a clean, orderly house over a dump.

Less obvious is the cognitive science behind simplicity.  There is new evidence that a simple design is actually better patterned after the structure (and inherent limitations) of human cognition.

In a recent Stanford study, Cognitive Control in Media Multi-taskers, a series of tests compared relative cognitive performance of heavy multi-taskers, those who take in a greater frequency of information, and light multi-taskers, those who take in less frequent amounts of information.

The unsurprising, but nevertheless fascinating outcome was this:

Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.

It is important to acknowledge that as designers, we’re not just “getting out of the way of the end user,” we’re also controlling the end-user. Without some structured limitation, there can be no freedom.  This universal principle shows up in our social orders, in our living spaces and it shows up in human-computer interaction design.

Simplicity isn’t just about giving users what they want, it is about training the end-user to think clearly about their next step, filter out what is not in line with that action, and quickly adjust their browsing behavior in the event of a mis-step.

To some extent, limitation is about controlling the quantity of possible paths to improve the quality of the paths and the user experience of selecting those paths.  The reality is, limitations give us space to think like dignified, rational humans and not just like impulsive consumer machines.

design

Parrots Don’t Know What They’re Talking About


Looking at data, reciting the data, is not the same thing as understanding and analyzing it… not anymore than reading a Quantum physics book aloud is any indication that I am a Quantum physicist.  I think that focused, patient, unrelenting determination to making sense of all the facts with a coherent, tested theory is one of the least cultivated skills in our day, despite the emphasis in our education system on scientific method.

I’ve come to reflect on this issue because of a common thread that appears in discussion about analytics in the business context.  Article after article has been written to address an apparently prevalent issue: we overwhelm ourselves with data, that, while possibly interesting, we fail to understand or do anything with. 

I am not sure why this is.  There are so many possible factors.  I have a few hunches, though. 

Perhaps the scientific community’s traditional emphasis on empirical data combined with Modernist atomist approaches to making sense of that data has something to do with our situation.  Empirical data is anything we can see with our eyes or otherwise validate by use of the senses – supposed proof.  Atomism is the assumption that simply breaking data, or matter, into smaller and smaller parts will render the atomic or basic, element that somehow explains things at the macro level. 

This may affect how subjects are seen as isolated and unique, why you can’t get math and literary theory in the same room… or lesson.  This shift began, more or less, with the idea that science could provide a pure method for securing knowledge about ourselves and our world.  Understanding a subject means abstracting it and pulling it out of its context within other subjects.  The scientific method has (tended to) be understood as implying that you have to have a controlled environment – a thing itself by itself – in order to extract reliable information about it.  

Perhaps abstracting a subject does render some special perspective on it.  After all, you sometimes we just have to choose something on which to focus our attention.  When it comes to practicing the skill of brain surgery, I probably should not be discussing the ethical implications of Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I might seriously harm my patient and probably won’t be saying anything meaningful about the book either.

But is this the whole picture?  Is the goal of study only to learn brute facts about material objects?  Or are we aiming for something bigger?  From my point of view, probably more in line with scholastic educational theorists, we’re hoping to learn about ourselves, our history, our present culture, our future, our values and our meaning.  Maybe we don’t always get that far.  But most would agree, probably even many materialists, that at least asking ethical, aesthetic, cultural and existential questions is an enriching activity contributing to quality of life, even if we don’t arrive at “answers” in the scientific or deductive sense.

When you emphasize simply using more powerful microscopes instead of more powerful theories, you may get interesting things to look at, but not clear understanding.  This helps make some sense of why analysis is lacking in the scientific community. 

Parrots don’t know what they are talking about.  Looking at raw data, no matter how granular you get, does not render a helpful theory for making sense of that data – its properties, relations and behavior.  Simply stating that something is x,y,z is not the same thing as explaining what, how, why, etc.  Parroting off information is not the same thing as understanding it.

I’m just not that into me.


Where does the “silo” idea come from?  Well, as I understand it, if a manager considers the intrinsic functions of a department as the chief value and aim of that department, he or she is demonstrating “silo thinking”.  He or she has lost site of the structure and goals of the organization as whole. 

This mindset tends to lead managers to structure and run departments within an organization in a way that protects and maintains growth within that department, possibly to the detriment of the organization as a whole.

The implications are intuitive enough. Communication and collaboration tends to suffer. Sharing resources is precluded by self-interests and pet projects. Even if the silo mentality helps bottom line to some extent in the short-term, it is likely to derail success in reaching long-term organizational goals.   

All of this sounds like a round about way of describing selfishness in a business context.  Not only selfishness, but a philosophy that assumes a lot about the baseness of human nature.

Ayn Rand praised the virtue of selfishness; but I’m just not convinced – on a personal or professional level.  There’s too much evidence to suggest that selfishness is not the only thing that motivates people and makes them happy or successful. 

We actually derive enjoyment from playing a part on team that is bigger than us and working towards a bigger purpose.  This enjoyment translates into motivation, which translates into loyal, honest, smart, and hard work.  I recommend Daniel Pink’s recent release, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for more reading on this subject.

I recognize, however, that if a work environment does not protect the psychological possibility of being part of the broader success of the company, Managers will become self-interested in protecting their department and his or her employees are more likely to become focused on their own personal achievement. 

Some see this as evidence of our inevitable selfishness.  But I don’t see it that way.  I think our attitudes and behavior are strongly afftected by our environment, and if a work environment exudes apathy and self-interest, people will absorb it. 

Alternatively, a positive, collaborative company brand will affect workers for the better.  I’ve seen this on sports teams, project teams, in families, groups of friends and nearly every social structure I can imagine.

What am I saying?  Well, I suppose I’m just trying to point out an observation: humans aren’t necessarily motivated by self-interest.  I think that this feature of human psychology entails that silo-based organizations are bound to fail and miss out on a vital resource that could help their company succeed in the long term: the dedication of the human spirit. 

While a blog entry just isn’t the place to exhaustively cover, well, any single subject (except, perhaps, a blog about Lindsay Lohan or something roughly equivalent in nature), I hope to have presented some plausible claims worth exploring for yourself in your work.