More Like A City Than An Army

In recent appearances, I have used a certain example to make a case about the openness in businesses of the future, contrasting today’s organizations with cities. ‘You don’t have to ask if you want to move to NYC’ I say. ‘You just show up, and start doing your thing, interacting with people, renting a storefront, buying things.’

‘Imagine a business where you can just show up and say, I want to work here. And you’d be engaged in the workings of the business by making connections with people.’

People are generally dumbfounded when I say this.

How could it work? First of all, the business would have to knowingly be open to these sorts of interactions. Other residents of the business-as-city would have joined in the same way, and there would be patterns of interaction and social contexts set up for that purpose.

So, it’s just a set of social constructs that surround and support the work to be done, like establishing a way to get paid for work done in a business-as-city.

So, it’s been a thought experiment, a Schrödinger’s Cat,  until I read that Color’s CEO is trying to run this experiment at the new photo-centric social tool startup.

Jason Kincaid, Color’s Totally Public Photo Swapping Service Has A Public Office To Match

Color CEO Bill Nguyen, who sold Lala to Apple in 2009 before starting Color, has written a letter to passersby inviting them to come inside and check out the office — where they’ll actually be able to submit ideas for the product.

Here’s the full text:

“What is Color? We are an open social network for your iPhone and Android.

This is our home that we’ll be opening to our community. You can come in during the day and participate in our product vision. We’ll take your ideas and build them into our efforts. Whether you are a high school student, Stanford Phd candidate, or just an interested Palo Alto neighbor we can’t wait to meet you.

Bill, CEO, Color

We’ve confirmed that the letter was indeed written by Nguyen, and he isn’t just paying lipservice to the neighbors — Color has every intention of opening parts of its office to the public.

I will follow up with Nguyen, and see whether this is just a tactic, or is he envisioning a business-as-city.

Some background: Cities exhibit superlinear performance, unlike businesses which are sublinear. As new employees are added to a business, performance decreases per employee. Cities are the only human artifact that break this trendline: they increase in productivity as more people move in.

So, business should aspire to take on the characteristics of cities – to the degree feasible – to break past sublinear performance.

The first step might be to break down the barriers that thwart brilliant and hard working people who want to work with Apple or Color from doing so. All the heat loss associated with resumes, headhunting, and confirming SAT scores – the entire HR department – might be just a waste of effort. What if they just let people choose?

Of course, the company would have to be organized in a vastly different way. People could ‘work’ at such a future Apple by just showing up, but they might have to convince others to let them participate on projects, or get an idea funded, or change a product’s features. We’d have to have a wildly different notion of ‘management’: one that would be fully distributed in some way.

This theme is an aspect of what I call messiness-at-scale: for companies to go superlinear, they have to drop all plans to keep things tidy, and accept a state of near chaos, out at the far edge, where the power curve of innovation, creativity, and resilience is at its strongest.

At any rate, this is the first actual evidence I have seen that CEOs are starting to think about this. More to follow, I am sure.

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