Hungry Like a Wolf (Julian Wilson)

© johann35 - Fotolia.comImagine hunting like a wolf pack at work instead of taking orders and handouts from your boss like a lap dog. What if you were responsible for your own profits every month, pocketing 20% of them on top of your salary? What if you could choose your managers, your workspace, your equipment, materials, customers, colleagues and hours?

One radical Dorset company, Matt Black Systems, has done precisely that by scrapping traditional leadership and hierarchies. The family firm was failing: in terms of the Boston matrix, it was transitioning from the ‘cash cow’ to ‘dog’ phase, burning through capital to survive. As a result of a radical transformation of the business, productivity increased by 300% and profit margins by 10% while pay increased by 100%. Customer perception went from poor to outstanding with product returns at less than 1% and “on time/in full” delivery exceeding 96%.

This is our perspective:

  • The commercial environment is competitive and merciless, red in tooth and claw; it may not be natural but it certainly is wild.
  • For independent businesses to survive, they must trade profitably in this constantly changing marketplace. Their only guarantee of survival is in their ability to rise to new challenges; in short they must adapt, migrate or die.
  • To adapt a business must compete, and compete successfully. Just as in the natural world, it must fight for the opportunities in the marketplace, it must satisfy the demands placed upon it by its customers, its investors, and the law; and make a profit whilst doing so.
  • The competitive challenges presented by the marketplace can only be overcome through human ingenuity and taking risks. Markets are complex chaotic systems in the mathematical sense and humans are adept at dealing with them. Therefore, to remain successful companies must be designed to nurture the human capital within.

‘Scientific Business Management’

Chaplin: "Modern Times"Traditional business management systems following the philosophy of Taylorism or ‘scientific management’ are based on hierarchy, functionalisation, command-and-control. They are rigid, expensive to operate and struggle to deliver the adaptability necessary to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world. At best, these systems attempt to domesticate their inhabitants (as portrayed in Chaplin's "Modern Times") simply to elicit a repeat of yesterday’s behaviour, in the belief that this will guarantee continued success.

Goals are set at the top and interpreted by tiers of management while front-line staff is expected to comply with little scope for self-determination. Functional divisions between departments prevent staff from appreciating the full process involved in serving the needs of the customer. This mechanistic approach to business organization claims to be the pinnacle of efficiency but cannot deal with the messiness of reality or human individuality. The gap between theory and practice often results in a vicious cycle of de-motivation or resistance leading to an ever-increasing focus on compliance.

Following a process provides no guarantee that the outcome will be either satisfactory or profitable. The details of a process only confirm what needs to be done (or repeated). Whilst this may seem to exclude all the things that could go wrong, this is an illusion. Process cannot anticipate the unexpected. Potential problems are many and varied: the real world is a chaotic system. As Nassim Taleb pointed out in his 2007 book The Black Swan, we believe we ameliorate risk by identifying the most significant barriers to success (the things most likely to go wrong) and planning for them. However, we inevitably ignore an untold number of far less likely but more numerous obstacles. It is tempting to imagine that these highly unlikely barriers are of the “being struck by a meteorite” type, but in truth they are much more mundane and frequent. Think instead of the glitch in the banks computer that delays your payment for an urgent delivery.

Our view of business organization is gradually shifting to a more organic model that emphasizes the role of people with their own agendas, ideas and developmental goals. I believe that our business, indeed any business, can be usefully defined as a social institution. This definition focuses on the intangible heart of a business, that is to say, it focuses upon the people and their essential contribution. In the dynamic world of business today, producing the desired outcome is guaranteed only by the commitment of the individual to achieve it.

Using Biomimetics

My interest in biomimetics is not based on adopting nature’s tools but rather in the way these tools are used in nature. Humans have been bestowed great tools; nature also provides us with clues how to use these tools to best effect. Our human, structured, artificial arrangements seem to be at odds with nature’s approach to organisation. It is safe to assume that we are genetically disposed to nature’s approach rather than the one built on the machine model of the recent industrial past.

Andrew Friedman and Gerard Fairtlough proposed ‘responsible autonomy’ as an alternative to traditional ‘command-and-control’ models. Rather than attempting to enforce compliance through close supervision and a reliance on process, ‘responsible autonomy’ provides employees greater discretion within clear boundaries set by the customer and the law. Giving employees the ability to make and exercise independent choices encourages the human qualities of curiosity, imagination, creativity, cooperation, self-discipline and realization. To date, ‘responsible autonomy’ is largely theory, but we can find useful analogies in nature.

When I set out to re-invent Matt Black Systems, Prof. Julian Vincent at the University of Bath was doing interesting research on the organizational building blocks of ant colonies and the similarities to the way we structure our businesses. The important factor with ants is their morphology: the individuals are not interchangeable and are divided within the colony into different “castes”, from the obvious Queen, through to the male drones and the female workers. Their morphology is dictated by their function within the colony: their overall size, head size and mandible type vary considerably between food gatherers, colony defenders and other roles.

Humans are much more similar to each other; even the gender difference is not as pronounced as many species. When I reflected on other species that live in large groups like deer I saw much more subtle organizational hierarchies. However, we do not exhibit a similar ‘herd’ instinct. While we are not ‘loners’ like polar bears, we tend to form groups from a single family nucleus up to a maximum size of about 150 individuals.

© karlumbriaco - Fotolia.comWolf packs appeared to provide a useful analogy. Contrary to popular belief, wolf packs involve a wide range of subtle organizational interaction. The range of skills demonstrated by members showed significant overlap, even between the Alpha male and the Omega male at the opposite ends of the hierarchy. If we look at these relatively homogenous © cynoclub - Fotolia.compopulations of group species, we see individuals that are multi-skilled. Their behavioural differences reflect specialization primarily in social roles such as eating priority, den guarding and submissive/dominant posturing. In contrast, there are fewer individual differences with respect to cooperative behaviours such as coordinated hunting and sentry duty.

The wolf study proved important not just because of the similarity to the new Matt Black Systems organization but also because of the domestic dog comparison. The interaction between humans and dogs is built on pack behaviour but emphasizes the social roles. The result is a more asymmetrical relationship compared to what we observe in wolf packs. Similarly, our business organizations create asymmetric roles that encourage compliance and dependency.

Back to basics

© Felix Vogel - Fotolia.comOur tameness is now so endemic within our organisations that their very ability to compete is under threat. We seem to have both satisfied the demands of corporatism whilst at the same time increased its risk of collapse. We failed to appreciate that there is a balance to be struck, not an extreme to be pursued. We must balance our conformance to process (domestication) with our “wildness” because only together can stability in the moment and future competitiveness be achieved.

© bmaynard - Fotolia.comEvery business outcome, whether it be winning a contract, creating a design, purchasing ingredients, producing a product or service, delivering on time and making money in the process is a result of a multitude of compromises and coordinated behaviours struck by the individuals within the business. There are two important distinctions to be understood:

  1. The business does not do these activities, but rather individuals in the organisation do them.
  2. These outcomes are not the result of an unthinking adherence to process but instead require a uniquely human creative input.

To understand a business you must focus on the humans who occupy it, and so embrace the intangible aspects that lie at the heart of the business: the humans.

© wollertz - Fotolia.comIn nature, groups are seldom organized via a central agent operating a command-and-control hierarchy. Organizations are frequently multiple independent agents that are highly adaptive and self supporting. They are resourceful and responsible. These free agents may combine at a high level to co-ordinate their efforts, but seldom is the division of labour within a group as specialised as we see in our businesses. Generally animals are multi-taskers, multi-skilled and self supporting; hierarchies are only supported through consent.

This strategy works best in a world that is just too complicated to predict and control (a chaotic system). I maintain this is exactly the sort of world that our commercial organisations face and I believe that nature provides a blueprint that we are foolish to ignore.

As a social experiment and through commercial necessity, Matt Black Systems is integrating such an approach within a traditional engineering business, with considerable success. How we have achieved these results will be described in a future article.

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Julian Wilson is an industrialist. He has brought together his background in design and interests in psychology to rescue the family engineering business in Dorset. With an eye firmly on dealing with the cause not just the symptoms, he has undertaken a radical social experiment. This work is not just his passion: as his only source of income and security there is much at stake, success is essential, and success is measured in practical results.



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