Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Notes on organisation - Aptitude and Attitude

This is something I'll return to but I'll put this up as a starting point. It relates to the use of pioneers, settlers and town planners within an organisation (something I did 2004-2006 more by luck than design, noticed the dramatic effects and couldn't explain why until later). This is also the bit I missed from my tutorial at OSCON and got asked about.

It's an area I'm revisiting - having spent many years discussing it - because enough people have doubts and questions on culture & organisation, that it feels right to challenge some cherished assumptions.

Be warned ... these are notes from my past which combine experience with attitude based and cell based structures. Some of the concepts may well be out of date with contemporary thinking. This is just where I'm beginning my re-exploration and no, I don't think anyone knows "the answer".

When looking at a new line of business, I tend to prefer to describe the entire line of business as a Unit. Normally, I'd expect to see a well defined fitness function (describing rules of engagement, what it does, how it is to be measured, measures against user needs etc) and some form of cell based structure (e.g. Amazon two pizza rule) with each cell described by its own fitness function. Please note, this approach is based fundamentally on a focus on user needs (i.e. maps) as opposed to financial value.

Each cell is autonomous (within the fitness function) and the fitness function is defined, measured and evaluated by the executive in charge of the unit. If there are too many cells in one unit, I'd normally expect to see this broken down into multiple units each containing cells with autonomy & separation between both cells and different units.

General rules are :-
  • All work is defined by fitness functions (rules of engagement, user needs, mechanism of measurement etc)
  • All work is done by small cells (i.e. teams of less than 12) providing services / products etc to others. Each cell is covered by its own fitness function and has total autonomy over how it does things. 
  • All interaction is through service / product interfaces. These act as the boundary, the promises one group makes to others.
  • A unit is a logical grouping of one or more cells. It has an executive responsible.
  • The executive in charge of a unit is responsible for measuring, defining and refining fitness functions of all cells within their unit.
  • As cells become too big (i.e. greater than 12), they are subdivided into new cells within the unit. Each cell will have their own fitness functions.
  • As a unit becomes too big it is subdivided into new units, each with their own executive and fitness function.  
In figure 1, I'll apply these principles to a map of a new business. I'll assume you're familiar with mapping, if not then start here.

Figure 1 - Basic structure, derived from a map.

Now obviously each cell is going to require different skills (i.e. aptitudes or capabilities if you wish). It's the cells responsibility to ensure it has the right skills.

However, there's another factor in here. Attitude. When we look at a map, we know that activities evolve from uncharted to industrialised and the methods, techniques, type of people and even culture changes. The type of engineering you need to build a highly novel act (i.e. genesis) requires experimentation and agile techniques. The type of engineering you need to build a highly industrialised act requires a focus on volume operations and six sigma.

Figure 2 - Different Methods

Hence, when looking at your environment then along with aptitude (finance, engineering, network, marketing etc), attitude also matters.

Figure 3 - Importance of Attitude.

To resolve this problem, you need to populate the cells with different types of people - pioneers, settlers and town planners. All are important. It's not realistic to think that everyone has the same attitude, some are much more capable of living in a world of chaos, experimentation and failure whilst others are much more capable of dealing with intensive modelling, the rigours of volume operations and measurement.

Figure 3 - Populate by Attitude.

One of the things that populating by attitude enables is a process of theft in order to mimic evolution and the natural effects of competition i.e. settlers steal from pioneers, town planners steal from settlers and pioneers build on the service that town planners create.

Figure 4 - Mimicking evolution through theft.

But how do you populate the cells and ensure that theft occurs? The cells have autonomy after all and a tendency will be to stick with what they are doing.

Well, again the use of maps makes it easy for everyone to understand and challenge the type of attitude needed. The cells obviously need access to people with the right aptitude and attitudes. To complete this circle you need to end up with two branches of an organisation, both defined by fitness function. One branch is focused on work through a cell based structure, the other branch is focused on preparation (the development of aptitude, attitude and cultures to support this) and ensuring that theft occurs.


A) The work is divided into units and cells, defined by fitness functions (as above) with each cell having autonomy and separated from others through services or products produced or delivered.

B) The preparation side has different responsibilities. First, it is subdivided into the three structures necessary to enable three culture covering the different types of attitude. I know everyone says an organisation needs one culture, I fundamentally disagree. It needs three.

Each of those structures (Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners) have multiple aptitudes (finance, HR, engineering etc) and an executive in charge (a chief pioneer, a chief settler etc). The responsibilities of the executive in charge of each attitude are threefold.

1) developing the necessary culture and skill required for that particular attitude i.e. for pioneer engineers a focus on agile and experimentation whilst for town planner engineers a focus on extensive mathematical modelling and six sigma.

2) ensuring that required skills (of the right attitude and aptitude) are available to cells & units.

3) identifying opportunities for theft i.e. the job of the chief settler is to identify all those 'pioneer' cells whose work is becoming suitable for productisation and hence to steal from them by creating a new cell to meet the fitness function and replace the existing cell, forcing its pioneers to move on to more 'pioneering'. Ditto the chief town planner whose role includes industrialising all the 'settler' cells to more utility services.

Figure 5 - Overall structure.

The matrix structure of aptitude and attitude is used in preparation (i.e. creating the right culture & training in order to create effective cells). The executives in charge of the training function are responsible for ensuring this preparation and that a process of theft occurs within the working environment hence forcing cells to evolve. Every time they detect that the work of the cell is now evolved enough to be controlled by another cell type, they create that new cell with the view of deliberately stealing the existing cells work. This enforces adaptation in terms of evolution.

The working environment consists of cells (grouped into units) delivering against defined fitness functions and growing (as per a starfish model) to occupy the required space. As they create new cells, they steal from the preparation side any people they need. The cells control their work themselves (within the confines of a fitness function) and the only time they lose control is when a more appropriate cell (as in attitude) comes along and steals their work from them. The role of the executive function on the work side is in creating, monitoring and refining those fitness function. To spell it out one more time, the role of the executive side is not to tell the cells of work how to run themselves or how to organise themselves etc. The role of the executive function is to understand the environment and to adapt fitness functions according to any outside threat.

If you want a military analogy then think of the preparation side as administrative division (e.g. Divisions, Regiments or Battalions) where certain culture, attitudes and aptitudes are developed. Now, think of the units (the working function) as a tactical battle group, an independent fighting force consisting of smaller units made up from members from the administrative divisions. It's not a perfect analogy but it's close enough.

Now this model also complements platform approaches and the whole ILC technique for development and exploitation of ecosystems with town planners building the core services, pioneers developing new concepts on this and settlers exploiting both internal and external work (through the use of consumption data) to identify successful changes to be introduced. It also helps when it comes to the question of open source and how to implement 'open source on purpose' i.e. town planners have an incentive to industrialise components and push activities to open.

Parts of the structure are or have been implemented in different places. No single organisation seems to have fully covered both elements of aptitude & attitude combined with the needs of cell based structure i.e. companies are still learning, there is no book on this. I don't agree that our existing organisational structures (even Amazon's) represent the pinnacle of organisation. They are simply just a lot better than what most companies use.