The rise of the atomic organization

Human kind has had a long love affair with hierarchical organizations, and I think they still have their place in the world, but given the number of large failures of this type of organization lately, I’m with the group (Gary Hamel, for example) who thinks it’s time to expand our options and do some serious experimentation with fundamentally different organization models.

Much of the interesting discussion around this topic centers on social networks.  Great people like Rob Cross and Clay Shirky have shown that there is considerable power in the emergent relationships we all have around us.  Esteemed management consultant Jon Katzenbach and his colleague Zia Kahn describe the informal organization as an overlay to a traditional organization chart that acknowledges the way things really work.  I’m sure they are all on to something big.

Yet, one of the best tests for how an organization functions comes when people ask, “can you show me the org chart?”  Despite many efforts to engage in peer-to-peer activities, “bottom-up” feedback, and a kinder-gentler management philosophy, I find the “org-chart test” often reveals that power and authority still reside at the top of the house.

My experience at IDEO has shown me something quite different is possible.  As my colleague Bob Sutton says, IDEO does not play by the same rules as most businesses (or non-profits for that matter).  See Tim Brown’s blog about how IDEO uses design thinking to create innovative outcomes.  For the past few years, we’ve been trying to understand more about the conditions that enable design thinkers to thrive.  One significant output of this work is a concept called the “atomic organization” which is not simply a social network, but a fully different paradigm for organization behavior.

It’s ambiguous and slippery, but it’s not chaos.  It is a governed, open system with rules, deadlines, and high performance outcomes.  But there is nobody “in charge”, there’s no corporate strategy, and there’s an amazing amount of transparency and interconnectedness.  Ask for an org-chart at IDEO and people either laugh knowingly or simply don’t get the question.

Atomic ExampleSo we asked dozens of people here to draw their version of IDEO.  The synthesized result is a formal structure with consistent parts and rules that show a right way and a wrong way to organize, but a fundamentally different premise of control.  This approach works from the individual out, much like an atom has a nucleus with electrons orbiting around it, and atoms bond together to create molecules, people at IDEO exist at the center of their org-chart with several orbits full of people surrounding them.

This type of organization is both planned and emergent… it can evolve, grow, and contract.  It can be used to get decisions made and others to act.  Atomic organizations have gravity and density, and can be added together to create organizational mass and aggregated impact.  They make it possible to have multiple leaders of the same business unit, include “non-employees” without calling them outsiders, exist at a scale that is comfortable and manageable for the people within, yet still has incredible reach.

So who’s in charge?  That depends… what’s your question?