The Complexity of Scale and the Ways that we Change

Some things are large, and others are small, but their effect does not always correlate to size. I’m taking some time this week to consider ‘scale’, with a view to understanding what it is exactly that we need to grow, and how exactly we need to grow it.

Organisations rely on scale for their effect: their footprint upon the ground is measured in number of offices, warehouses, trucks, laboratories, and retail outlets. Their capacity is often measured in productive elements: people, robots, assembly lines, ovens, mixers and stills.

Organisations are directed through a scaling of both leadership, and belief: to take a vision and make it a reality. Hence they are also scaled entities of power.

But Organisations are social structures too, so as they scale they become meta-tribal, with Communities that expand, fracture, divide, and scale, in complex ways.

And we measure our success in terms of the returns that are made upon capital investment: to scale our profit, to scale our market share, to scale our impact.

Tied up into all of these things is the notion of change: we tweak, amend, refurbish, or reinvent, ourselves and our structures to deliver these ends.

Indeed, notions of ‘scale’ and ‘change’ are inextricably mixed in the context of Organisations, when we consider the directed patterns of change most often sought: we seek to shift physical footprint to be best suited to the needs of today, and our plans for scale tomorrow, mechanisms of effect, or adoption of culture, to deliver a vision, to scale uptake of new ideas or implementation of new systems to achieve desired ends.

We look to go from ‘one’ to ‘many’, or from ‘isolated’ to ‘systemic’. The notion of ‘growth’ (be it in productivity, profit, or reach) is really a conversation about scale, and the type of scale that we can achieve.

But to understand scale is to look at the world through two eyes, not just one: there is the scale of the thing itself, and then there are the complex interactions between different things as they scale.

So ideas can spread, but they evolve or fray as they do so, as they interact with other ideas and wisdom. We can grow teams, but productivity does not scale because leaders, and vision, are both variable.

Let’s take a simple look at this. Consider two things: we can build a new team, and house it in a new building.

The building is made from bricks: one brick is small, but if we add progressive numbers of bricks, the effects of shelter and support are scaled. With ten thousand bricks we have built our office.

The team is made from people, and stuff. The laptops, tables, chairs, and ceiling lights all scale the same as the bricks. But do people?

Is a team of ten people exactly ten times better than a team of one? And if so, is that a deterministic effect, or an accidental or emergent one?

If one brick is 10cm high, then ten bricks will be one metre high. That’s a deterministic effect, it will happen every time.

But ten people are not always ten times better than a team of one: or at least not in every way.

The ‘right’ team of ten people [call them ‘Team A’] may be wildly more productive than one person could be, bringing diverse skills, knowledge, and capability.

The ‘wrong’ team of ten people [call them ‘Team B’] may be dysfunctional, and much less productive than Team A (although still more productive than a solitary individual.

But of course it’s not as simple as ensuring we always hire ‘Team A’ types, because the situation is complex.

Team A may be wildly effective at a task, but if we switch out their leader, they may become less effective. And if we put their leader into Team B, then Team B may improve. Switching Team B’s leader to Team A may, by contrast, reduce effectiveness.

So is it a matter simply of leadership? Clearly not: because if the task changes, then Team B may suddenly excel, and Team A fall behind. There are both direct effects (20 hands can lift 20 bricks) and meta-effects (how many people does it need to invest a brick lifting machine?).

When Organisations consider scale, and change, they often do so by considerings firstly the desired outcome, and secondly the ways that they can move things around to achieve it.

So if we want to transform culture, we train leaders. If we want to innovate we build spaces, and if we want engagement, we create opportunity. All of which is good, but is also disconnected in certain ways. Leaders are part of culture but do not own it. Innovation needs space, but if governed by interaction, resource, and consequence. Engagement requires opportunity, but is subject to recognition, reward, and agency. Which is another way of saying that things are complex and interconnected.

One view that we could take is this: Organisations grow, they become ‘large’, but wish to retain something of the ‘small’, because as we become larger we do not automatically become better.

They want certain aspects of scale, whilst remaining connected, agile, and somehow small.

Fortunately, in parallel to this, in the broader context of the Social Age, we are seeing the notion of ‘globally local’ achieved at scale. Connection, community, belief, all aggregating in third spaces, all achieving effect.

To understand the scale we may need to understand the individual elements, the specific mechanisms and characteristics, the varied ‘types’ of scale, any underlying laws or rules, and the detailed mechanisms by which we can connect between the components.

In effect, we need to understand how scale works, and use that knowledge to shape change, rather than changing in the hope that we simply scale.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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