The Power of Spontaneous Associaton in the workplace

Many of us come across this challenge: take a traditional command and control, vertically integrated organization and make it nimble and fast. It may be that you manage an operation; or that you’re involved in an ERP project; or maybe you’re just part of some continuous improvement initiative. If you’ve faced that kind of challenge, you must have struggled with the little matter of the org structure.

How much time do managers and executives spend thinking, debating, elaborating org structures, their minute details, job descriptions, roles and responsibilities, and on and on, seeking clarity and stability – make that permanency. Ahh… maybe now we got it! Oh, wait a second, that department over there shouldn’t be responsible for… etc.

But step back a little and look at it, this drawing with boxes cascading down like a pyramid, connected by lines – look at it. Doesn’t it just feel rigid? How can a thing like that adapt?

An org structure is a naïve illusion, a wishful thought, an image of the world as a permanent, stable environment. There was a time when the world was indeed simple, slow and somewhat stable; it changed in waves; there would be a disruption, it would go on for a year or a decade and then it would settle into a new order, not to be disrupted for another period of stability.

Our world today is a permanent wheel of change that just doesn’t stop turning – in fact, it turns faster and faster all the time. So, any shape one designs to define how people should bring their skills together to respond to external events, that is based on a notion of stability or can be drawn as any kind of rigid structure, is not going to succeed. It just won’t move fast enough!

Just thinking logically – if everything changes all the time, it then follows that the way that people combine their capabilities to create solutions to problems and take action, it too should be able – ideally! – to change all the time, don’t you think?

Now, here’s the good news: human beings, when functioning in groups, have this innate, natural ability, to figure out how to combine their skills to create solutions to problems or respond to situations with rapid actions. This ability is called Spontaneous Association.

In my experience, this ability doesn’t depend on the nature or scale of the challenge. Whether it’s an event, a crisis, a project to create something new or an operation to produce the same thing many times over, the mechanism works. Better still, human beings don’t need to be trained – they just do it!

SA resembles the way our brains work. The brain develops knowledge by creating many, many, many circuits of neural pathways, networks that respond to external stimuli. Multiple individuals working together towards a common goal can instantiate invisible ‘circuits’ of actions analogous to swarms with collective intelligence.

Of course, this isn’t limited to individuals inside a single Enterprise. After all, Enterprise boundaries are themselves illusions, legal artifacts that constrain behavior but don’t limit human capabilities. Imagine multiple Enterprises networking spontaneously to combine assets and capabilities to respond to broad, massive scale challenges. When Dan Tapscott and Anthony Andrews talk about “mass collaboration” they are essentially referring to the SA phenomenon across vast expanses of humanity.

But, back to my humble post… So, here’s what I think: first, get rid of the org structure. I don’t mean get rid of the people whose names are in those boxes; I mean get rid of the very notion of an org structure. Eradicate it from your mental map of the world. Pretend it was never invented (might as well, this thing was invented by the Greeks, 2,500 years ago!).

Then, think of what your business does – its value proposition – as a few major tasks – like, this is the basic stuff we do. Maybe you create products – that’s one thing – and you supply products – that’s another. For each of these broad ‘tasks’, establish a ‘swarm’ of people (the term “swarm” usually refers to swamps of insects or birds but I am using it here metaphorically as people coordinating their actions intuitively towards a common result) but make sure that there are enough skills and enough capacity to get things done.

You can subdivide these missions and have smaller and more numerous swarms, and that’s fine, but the key is that each swarm is self-sufficient vis a vis resolving challenges or delivering on the end promise. So, a swarm for a quality control ‘mission’ wouldn’t make sense. But a swarm for motorcycles and another for trucks, that makes sense. A swarm to market and another to deliver – that’s borderline but it probably works.

The strategy, direction, value proposition, quality attributes, legal constraints, basic practices – to each swarm, need to be clearly established. “Where we’re going” has to be given to the ‘swarm’. But “how to get there”, that’s up to the swarm to figure it out.

And then, you just let it rip! No process, procedure, organization structure, linear packaging of jobs, or other form of artificial design – can possibly match the speed with which well equipped swarms can respond to situations or needs. Not even close! It’s like comparing sound to light.

Many will have concerns with quality, consistency of service, etc. but you shouldn’t! Swarms can figure that out. Swarms (as described above) are made of intelligent individuals with all the right skills. Individuals network within swarms and swarms network with other swarms. Just let them know what you’re looking for in the way of consistency of service or product quality – they’ll do it.


  1. Hi Tony

    I just watched the vido recorded by the University of Waterloo. Wonderful stuff.

    I absolutely agree with your point of view.

    Have you come across the work of Adaptive Case Management by Max Pucher? specifically addresses the difference between structured processes suitable for BPM, and, what Max calls, ’emergent’ processes required to satisfy ad hoc decision support processes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s