Organising to Learn


Yesterday I spoke at the excellent Aerials event here in Toronto, curated by the folk behind The Alpine Review. The theme of the day was organisational agility in a networked world, and there was a wonderful line up of speakers including Mark Raheja from August, the consultancy born from the sad demise of Undercurrent.

In his talk Mark took an articulate canter through the forest of organisational change and team development (echoing and building on some of the themes you can see in Mike Arauz's presentation here). One of the most interesting slides for me juxtaposed organisations that are set up around execution with those that are organised around learning. 


I've written before about the importance of developing a learning culture in companies, and there are some critical differences here that speak to some of the applications of what this really means.

Like Undercurrent before it, August don't just talk a good game, they bring to life through their own company too. Mark mentioned their experiment in radical transparency - clicking on the 'public' link in the main nav of their website opens up a Google Drive which contains not only a reference library and toolkit, but details on the finances of the business and the internal organisation and operations. It's really quite something. It's early days, but there's already much to admire about the way in which August seem to be working.

Co-Location and Concurrent Working in Agencies

I've just completed a major piece of research recently about the future of agencies - an update on the first report I authored on the subject back in 2012. It's quite amazing the amount of change that seems to have happened in the past few years. Many have talked about the inertia of agencies, and perhaps this is true of some, but whilst there remain plenty of challenges there's no doubt that the focus on customer experience is now driving plenty of change in operating models, the competitive landscape and the way in which agencies are engaging with clients.

One of the areas of change that was most interesting to me was the burgeoning practice of co-located and concurrent working. Some agencies, particularly those that are working beyond comms in broader-based transformation, capability, experience or service design work are usurping the traditional 'waterfall' hand-off processes that have become embedded ways of working, and creating smaller teams of cross-functional specialists that might include design/creative, UX, planning and maybe even the client.

This reminded me of the process that Dave King of The Royals described in his Firestarters Melbourne talk, based on the Google Ventures 5-day sprint methodology. This way of working involved concurrent working over a short sprint and was designed to ensure a more joined up approach between strategy and creative and in the discovery of insights and ideas. Dave talked about how the process leads to fertile discussions and ideas, and naturally puts need at the heart of every challenge. It doesn't feel like writing a brief, he said, it's more like decoding an opportunity. 


The agency people I interviewed for the research described some advantages of this kind of concurrent working - notably speed of delivery, less reliance on a 'big reveal' and less danger of misalignment, less duplication, the chance to show quick wins and create a sense of momentum, and increased client ownership of solutions.  

At the same time, the practice of agency staffers working alongside client staff in co-located teams seems to be becoming more prevalent. There are some interesting challenges around culture here (notably with staff working in unfamiliar or different environments and organisational cultures) but it seems that many agencies have already taken steps to manage this. 

But what's fascinating I think, is that it seems as though some of real fundamentals of the way in which agencies are working with clients really are changing. You can read the full report by downloading it here.

Is the Life Expectancy of Companies Really Shrinking?


There is a prevailing narrative that the life expectancy of large companies, faced with the challenges of technological disruption, has been reducing for some time. Work done (PDF) by Professor Richard Foster of Yale University (above, and which I talked about here) in particular, seems to show that the average lifespan of a company in the S&P 500 index has decreased from 61 years in 1958 to just 18 years today, a run rate that would mean that by 2027, more than three-quarters of the S&P 500 will be companies that we have not yet heard of. 

Yet perhaps the picture is actually more nuanced. This analysis by Boston Consulting Group looking at the patterns of entry, growth, and exit for 35,000 publicly listed companies in the US since 1950 shows that over the long-term company lifespans have indeed decreased, yet in the recent past they have plateaued and may have actually slightly increased. Whilst human lifespans have increased markedly since 1950, say BCG, company life expectancy has almost halved:


This is also reflected in the five year company mortality risk (which, for public companies traded in the US, is now at 32% compared with a 5% risk 50 years ago):


But as Bloomberg point out, the data incorporates not just bankruptcy and liquidation but also merger and acquisition, and shows that whilst there was a dramatic decrease in corporate lifespan (and increase in mortality risk) during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s this has, since around the turn of the century, actually stabilised. What's more, analysis of the annual rate of turnover in the Fortune 500 by the Kauffman Foundation appears to support this picture - whilst the long-term trend line is up, the recent short-term one is down:


It's difficult to navigate through all the myriad factors to identify what might really be behind this picture, but perhaps the real story is less about the impending death of large businesses and more about their need to adapt - to move through business and product life cycles more quickly than before, to be more focused on systematic experimentation and organising swiftly around opportunity.

More is Different

"At first, poaching stars from competitors or even teams within the same organization seems like a winning strategy. But once the star comes over the results often fail to materialize...What we fail to grasp is that their performance is part of an ecosystem and removing them from that ecosystem — that is isolating the individual performance — is incredibly hard without properly considering the entire ecosystem."

An excellent post from Shane Parrish on making decisions in complex adaptive systems (like organisations). I like what he says about the perils of extrapolating individual behaviour to understand the likely behaviour of a system, being wary of systems becoming too tightly coupled through lack of individual diversity, and the values of using simulations (or tests and prototypes perhaps) to aid learning. Makes a lot of sense thinking about organisations in this way.

Dots Final Line Up


I'm biased (since I'm curating it) but I'm really excited by who we've got speaking at this year's Dots Conference. The final line up has been confirmed and it's ace. The theme is 'Transformation' and we'll be taking several different angles on that including learnings from those who are leading significant change in their organisations (the FT, BBC, Net-a-Porter), inspiring authors who've written about transformation, technologists speaking about how technology reframes our perceptions and our future, and people who've come up with transformational ideas and done something about it. So our line up is:

A trip to the seaside, an amazing venue, great lunch and great speakers. Quite probably the best conference you'll go to all year (but then I'm biased). Spaces are limited but I have some tickets available at a discounted rate of £150 for readers of this blog. Just go here, and use the code 'ODF'. See you there.