There is only one of you

June 30, 2014

Ponder this for a moment:  as big and as global as the Internet is, every single human being is born with a far more impressive network. It’s called a brain.

I learned last week from author Steven Campbell (Making Your Mind Magnificent) that the human brain has  more than 100 billion neurons (that’s not a typo!). But, as Campbell says,

…this is nothing! Each of those neurons has an average of 10,000 connections to other neurons. This computes to 100,000,000,000 connections! That is a quantity found by multiplying 100 billion times 100 billion, times 100 billion…ten thousand times. As a comparison, 100 billion multiplied by 40,000 is a number larger than the number of stars in the Milky Way. We truly cannot fathom the number of connections our brain has.

(Making Your Mind Magnificent, p.4)

Campbell is describing the network inside just one human brain! And there are upwards of 7 billion human beings alive today – most of them in possession of a functioning brain.

I am still absorbing the implications of those numbers. You – the sum total of your personal experiences and memories – exist within that network of neurons in your brain. And there is no other network like yours in all of reality – and there never has been.

It sounds trite to say you are unique – but, boy, are you ever!

And just as importantly, the brain is a network that is always growing, forming new connections, recording our experiences, and guiding the way we make sense of the world. And my own feeble brain is beginning to see a bigger pattern:  from cells to organs to systems to bodies to teams to organizations to communities to societies, networks are the foundation of everything we know and do.

And why is this important? Because for the past several centuries we’ve modeled our organizations and our command structures not on nature, networks, and living things, but on machines. And I’m convinced that – as work has moved beyond brute force towards brain force – we have developed a terrible misfit between people and the work they do, on the one hand, and the way we try to manage them, on the other.

The Industrial Revolution triggered an incredible explosion of invention, innovation, economic growth, and improvements in the human condition. Everyone, everywhere in the so-called civilized world, was fascinated by the power of machines to do the same thing over and over and over again. The assembly line, and the individual machines that comprised it, enabled us to produce vast quantities of identical, high-quality, low-cost products – whether cars or refrigerators or television sets or you name it.

And we needed large organizations to plan, manage, produce, and distribute all those goods and services. So the captains of industry built organizational structures that were modeled after the machines they admired so much. Their focus was on designing predictable, repeatable business processes that would produce millions of consistent, error-free products.

And as manufacturing and distribution firms grew those captains of industry came to believe that the most efficient way to organize large numbers of people and processes was through formal, consistently-applied policies and procedures.

Well, that was a logical, and even understandable, approach – as long as the work itself was repeatable, predictable, and aimed at minimizing costs.

But something happened on the way to the future. It turns out that human beings are not machines. Our great strengths are problem-solving, creativity, and innovation – and today  mass-produced products have become commodities. Economic value comes from innovation and imagination – from leveraging all that unique experience each one of us brings to the table. But the “processes” we rely on to solve problems and invent new things are messy, unpredictable, and often invented on the fly.

We now live in what I and others are calling the “Age of Networked Intelligence.” The wonder of the Internet is that it can connect us to just about any information, and any other person, without knowing in advance what questions we want to explore, or even who we want to connect with.

I’ve recently been writing about the value of managing teams and whole organizations as living systems – which are nothing if not networks (See “It’s Not What You Know” and the three posts preceding that one).

I’m now calling for a leadership style that values diversity rather than ignoring or destroying it, a style that seeks ideas and insights from every possible source, a style that leverages the innate talents and unique perspectives of every individual in the organization. Bureaucratic power is a limited and limiting way to get things done in a world driven by innovation, agility, and messy, wicked problems.

A final thought:  society today is reaping enormous gains in productivity and efficiency through resource sharing and the emergence of the sharing economy (see Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, eBay, Craigslist, Indiegogo, LiquidSpace, and co-working operations like The Hub, Benjamin’s Desk, NextSpace, Greenspaces, Grind, and many others).

What if we looked at leadership and power the same way? Leverage the diverse networks of information and experiences that already exist in our brains, in our teams, and in the economy at large. Grow power by sharing it and by making room for all the diversity and creativity already embedded in your teams. I’m convinced the results will astound you.

Do you have a power-sharing or collective intelligence experience? What happened? What were the results?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Richardson July 1, 2014 at 3:21 am

Right on! But it’s not just the orderliness of the machine metaphor that’s holding us back now – it’s the way we approach the concept of accountability. Accountability is mostly what drives us to make inhuman decisions and that’s a large part of what is destroying our social fabric. That’s why the sharing economy works — it’s able to bypass formal accountability structures.


supriya December 29, 2016 at 4:21 am

I am reading your post from the beginning, it was so interesting to read & I feel thanks to you for posting such a good blog, keep updates regularly.


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