A Beguiling 20%


This month our nation celebrated its 242nd birthday. As I was sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium on July 4 watching a spectacular and patriotic fireworks display (following a wonderful midseason win) something quite obvious but strange occurred to me:

I have been alive for over 20% of our nation’s history.

That may not seem curious to you, but it does to me. No one in Russia, China, or most of western Europe can say that.

It is only because we are such a young nation that our lives constitute such a significant portion of our nation’s entire state of being.

I have been trying to put that in context. I am over a half-century in age, and the nation is less than five half centuries in age. For sake of context, I have tried to segment those de facto quintiles into what I have experienced as current events (the most recent 20%) and what I must study as history.

Latest 20%: Age of economic triumph, the information age, and age of civil rights.

Prior 20%: Age of two world wars, one Great Depression, and vast immigration.

Middle 20%: Age of Civil War and Reconstruction.

Second 20%: Age of Manifest Destiny & Industrial Revolution.

Initial 20%: Age of our Founding Fathers, American Revolution, and the visionary foundation of secular democratic governance.

It doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time for all that to have happened when you think about it. I guess that’s because it really isn’t. What’s 242 years? These days, it’s about three full lifetimes. If you time them correctly, you could talk to someone who talked to someone who knew someone who experienced Independence Day as current events.

That’s just wild. Mind-boggling! And look how far we’ve come!

Or have we?

Well, we have sent humans to the moon and probes to Jupiter and Pluto. We have air conditioning, spiffy kitchen appliances, and running water in our homes (when we don’t run out). We have lots and lots of TV channels. We have supercharged computers in our pockets we call mobile phones. We have this Internet thing that has eliminated almost all barriers to information access and makes globalization a reality.

Yet we still fight a lot, among ourselves and with faraway strangers. It seems that in every one of those quintiles we fought a lot. Maybe fighting is a constant in almost every nation’s evolution. History would seem to reinforce that recurrence.

We haven’t had all that many U.S. presidents. Our current office holder is only number 45. Many recaps of U.S. presidents show that many of the individuals who held the office weren’t very good at it in hindsight. Luckily, there are a few most of us agree regardless of political affiliation will always be American heroes. There’s Lincoln. There’s Washington. I think it might start to get controversial after that.

I wonder if the top people in charge of running our nation day-to-day in all its complexity—whether elected officials or policy makers or military leaders or business executives or educators—are in awe of their 20% stage time. I doubt it. The truly influential people I know and the many I study from afar seem to like their gigs a lot, but in my observation very few of them seem in awe.

I also wonder how many of the leaders guiding our 20% are good listeners. Do they hear the studied voices among us? Do they listen for the quieter voices who choose not to enter the knock-down, drag-out drama of overpowering influences and powerful, conflicted mandates? Do they immerse themselves in understanding the previous 80% of our time as a nation where we might have emerged a winner but didn’t necessarily embrace a sense of humility and real justice in establishing a fair set of rules? Do they strive for a true sense of vision or just winning for bragging rights and lovely take-home prizes?

I also find myself thinking about things I have lived through largely from inception, particularly the rapid compounding of computer technology. I imagine this is how people felt who went from horses and buggies to the Model T, having seen automobiles take over roads that were created for drawn carriages. I can’t remember a time before air travel, but my dad can. When I think about his lifespan, the numerator and denominator tell me he has lived through almost a third of the nation’s history. He may achieve a beguiling 40%!

I thought life was breathtakingly scientific when I sat in front of a black-and-white CRT eating Space Food Sticks while NASA astronauts blasted into orbit. Now I write about that as nostalgia while pretty much every public document in human history is available to me by typing on this keyboard into a conceptual framework of storage we simply refer to as the cloud.

Why take pause on the magnitude of a quintile? I guess for one reason because I am naturally sentimental about milestones. All forks in the road of consequence inspire my introspection, giving me excuse if not reason to try to put into perspective the meaning of our timeline.

Yet more than that, I am particularly absorbed in trying to make sense of the coming quintile, which by all stretches of the imagination I will not see resolved. I suppose if lucky I may live to see our nation on its 275th birthday, but there is not chance I will see our Tricentennial.

Am I worried what we might become collectively between now and then? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know the depth of my concern. I guess that will give me much to write about as we walk forward together through future milestone celebrations. Between now and then, I can only hope that the nation’s leadership does embrace the gravitas of our current context.

America is an idea more than anything. Promising ideas need to be nurtured, not battered.

Speaking of milestones, this happens to be my 200th blog post since I launched CorporateIntel in 2011. Along the way I have met hundreds of interesting new people both virtually and in person. Writing is a solitary endeavor until you push the Publish button on your text editor. This magnificent innovation has opened my life to so many minds I would never otherwise have encountered. When we share ideas and swap stories, technology goes into the background and our human thoughts take precedence over the engineering that facilitates our interactions. As long as human interaction and exchange overrides the technical wonder of its creation, you can count on me for another 200.

_______________

Photo: Pexels

Advertisements

Who’s Really Sitting at the Top of Every Organizational Chart

New Org Chart 1cFacebook moved into a new office complex earlier this year, which Mark Zuckerberg has described as “the largest open floor plan in the world.” With over 400,000 square feet, it is reported not to offer a single private office. There are conference rooms, shared spaces, and all kinds of creative gathering areas meant to protect the startup environment that is core to the company’s zeitgeist as it evolves into a corporate behemoth. It’s a wild, energetic, real-time experiment in organizational development that is already being praised and criticized from inside and outside the company. Whatever your assessment might be, it’s a test of human behavior worth watching.

For a moment, I’d like to think of the Facebook campus not as a model of space planning, but as a model of team planning. Long before the debate raged on whether private offices had run their course of usefulness—and just how truly dreadful the industrial cubicle could be—company leaders were debating the “optimal” way to arrange organizational charts in the Information Age. If you’ve spent any time with me in product development, you know I like to quote the sometimes overused phrase, “People in companies get stuff done in spite of org charts, not because of them.” It’s a bias I maintain for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is seeing it in action almost every day. Another bias I hold applies to the “optimal” way to build these org charts. I’ll confess to that in a moment, but the title of this article has likely already given away my leaning.

Let’s start with the basics. The rise of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, emerging from prior Agrarian Societies, led to thousands of individuals working for single companies, for the most part creating efficiencies in the manufacturing model. Most of us are familiar with the innovation of Henry Ford as something of the father of mass production with his 20th Century Assembly Line. The premise of the organizational charts for these early corporate conglomerates surmised that a few knowledge workers and a Big Boss would send instructions down the pyramid to a wide base of workers who hopefully wouldn’t ask too many questions. Executives were at the top, middle managers squeezed in the sandwich, and individuals contributors down below busy doing their hands-on functions repeatedly. If the model sounds blunt and easy to follow, there is a reason for that—it dates back to the earliest days of broad warfare, mostly perfected by the Romans. You have an Emperor, you have Generals, you have Captains, and you have Soldiers. It worked for thousands of years in capturing terrain, albeit at the cost of mostly Soldiers, and it worked for hundreds of years in mass producing products, too often without much consideration of job satisfaction.

As education and information became more available in later decades, and asking questions became the norm, the inflexible org chart became a lot more difficult to maintain. As workers collaborated more and followed instructions less, human resources departments (formerly known as personnel offices) looked to break out of the traditional top-down structures and unleash creativity. Standard org charts evolved along the lines of two basic models: Functional Departments and Cross-Functional Teams.

Functional Departments place similarly skilled workers into groups led by senior individuals with advanced experienced in a discipline. This creates a Legal department, an Art department, an Engineering department, a Finance department, a Sales and Marketing department, and the like. Over the course of your career you might aspire to become the VP of Finance or the VP of Marketing, and these VPs, now sometimes called C-Level executives (Chief Financial Officer, Chief Marketing Officer) point the functional expertise of their teams into a Chief Executive Officer. Your company may organize itself this way. It is a very common and familiar way to organize. It’s also still very close to the old military hierarchy.

Cross-Functional Teams break the model of Artist reporting to Art Director and Engineer reporting to Engineering Director. They place multi-disciplinary groups under a generalist manager who is often more “cat herder” than boss. In this model, a smaller group of people with engineering, finance, marketing, design, and manufacturing expertise might all report to someone called a Project Lead, Product Manager, or General Manager, who is in essence a mini-CEO. Unlike Functional Departments, Cross-Functional Teams are likely to be less “permanent” in structure. The team might be ad hoc, assigned to an initiative, ready to be broken up and redeployed following a product release. Functional experts on the team might have a dual reporting relationship to the team leader and a senior expert in their area of expertise offering professional mentorship, so that a team leader who doesn’t know the law doesn’t have to render legal oversight (always a good idea). Over time Cross-Functional teams can evolve into more permanent Business Units with profit and loss responsibility for a specific line of products and extensions. If you have ever been in a company comprised of Battling Business Units , you know it can be even less fun than being buried on a Functional Team.

It is at the intersection of these two models that we all learn the necessity of Matrix Management, which unfortunately in the Information Age is the only real way we have to collaborate in an ongoing manner. Sometimes we need a Functional Department to help us advance in our area of expertise, and sometimes we need a Cross-Functional team to get stuff done with people who are good at different things. Most companies go back and forth between Functional Departments and Cross-Functional Teams, and just when you think your company has settled into a comfortable structure, along comes the inevitable memo announcing the company re-org. Companies re-org over and over in search of optimizing their growth models, but the truth is, neither approach is perfect, and whichever one your company is currently utilizing, be prepared to have it change. Re-orgs are certain because change is certain. The opposite would be sameness, and as much as you might think you want that, running in place is the surest way possible to go out of business.

Oh, about that bias of mine—I believe anything in a company that leads to entrenched fiefdoms stalls creativity. Functional Departments are usually fiefdoms. Business Units are usually fiefdoms. Again, this is why Matrix Management is a reality, particularly in managing empowered, innovative individuals who join together in a mission that is unlikely to last a lifetime, but has a real chance to change the world now. If we take that back to the visual metaphor of the open floor plan, I tend to see greater strength in the output and engagement of Cross-Functional Teams than I do Functional Departments. That doesn’t mean I am against having an exemplary CFO, CTO, or CIO setting the bar for excellence in a discipline. It just means that whatever the org chart says at the moment, I don’t want any walls between artists talking to engineers, lawyers talked to sales people, accountants talking to marketers, or anyone so distant from customers that they forget who pays everyone’s salary.

You see, at the root of all this, there only is one Emperor, one General, one CEO, one Boss who matters most. That is the voice of the Customer, whom we almost never place on the org chart. Start by putting the Customer at the top of the hierarchy, and you’ll soon understand why who reports to whom doesn’t really matter when it’s time to tally the scorecard. That’s why the walls gotta go, figuratively or literally. Go out on the floor and try to bump into a few people. You may be surprised how much you learn and how good it feels.

_____

This article originally appeared on Inc.