In a conversation a few years ago, an acquaintance from a global telecoms company, I was told a story about the company’s response to the earthquake in Pakistan. The quake destroyed a communications hub serving not just Pakistan, but the entire region, preventing any kind of coordinated relief effort. Apparently, the rapid movement and installation of huge equipment, the mobilisation of people and expertise to the region and the life-threatening timescales available to execute meant they had to do three things.
First, appoint a super connected leader. Second, empower and trust her/him to get the job the done. Finally, break all the rules and protocols by waiving all formal project governance requirements. The telecoms company reports the effort and budget expended to restore regional communications at this scale was the same as a traditionally governed two-year project, except this one took just three months to complete.
How did this happen? The leader mobilised informal networks and relationships to create self-organising and high-performing teams to deliver everything needed to restore communications. This person couldn’t possibly directly know all these people, from manufacturers and engineers to designers and builders in several countries, but was sufficiently connected to leverage the links in those networks to reach everyone. Did the company take this approach again or change its project delivery model after the crisis? No.
This story reminds me of Steven Johnson’s snippet from an article he wrote in 2003:
“In his classic novel, Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut explains how the world is divided into two types of social organisations: the karass and the granfalloon.
No doubt you’ve experienced these two types of networks in your own life, many times over. The karass is that group of friends from school and university who have helped one another’s careers in a hundred subtle ways over the years; the granfalloon is the marketing department at your firm, where everyone has a meticulously defined place on the org chart but nothing ever gets done.”
When you find yourself in a karass, it’s an intuitive, unplanned experience. Getting into a granfalloon, on the other hand, usually involves showing two forms of ID.
In the digital workplace, the real power and utility of messaging apps is the same as human social networks except super connectors can be found faster and are more visible, and all the value is in the links not the nodes.