In search of the standalone complex: A loose group of individuals that work toward a common goal.

31 May

A true act creates the conditions of its own possibility.

Slavoj Zizek

For quite some time now I have been thinking and talking about the standalone complex. That is, an organization of independent agents working toward a common goal, with minimal structure. The provenances of this search are multiple: my experiences with clunky team projects as opposed to the more fluid and seamless duo projects, Ghost in the Shell, ants, birds, etc. What is different between the standalone and just a group of disorganized people, is not the amount of coordination in each, but the effectiveness of each. In the first, decisions are made quickly, iterated, tested and results returned for synthesis and assimilation. In the latter work is repeated, neglected, fragmentation occurs, egos bruised etc.

Why bother?

Our sensorial experience of time and space is shifting due to a feeling of increased mobility and the technological sensation of an always on that takes connection everywhere: it´s always now, it´s always here.1

I’m of two minds about the above statement. Firstly I believe that the core experiences of life will never change, and that no matter how technology changes, life will consist of a few things; food, drink, friends, music, conversation. The quality of the preceding will dictate your experience of life to a large extent. Secondly I have just stepped into the 21st century with my handheld internet portal thingy, and I am already experience a mental shift in how I perceive availability. Blackberry users have known this forever, but as I said, I have only just joined the ranks of the wirelessed.

To get back to the point, the creative working world is flirting with many practices in response to this ; horizontal hierarchy, collaborative leadership, servant leadership etc. I believe the root cause is a cultural shift. The apparent increase in complexity of problems, the rapid pace of technological change, all these are minor, in my opinion, in comparison to the change in people’s attitudes. There are fewer and fewer “company people” nowadays, as evinced by the number of startups. Especially in the creative fields, where the number of people who prefer to be freelance, to be entrepreneurial is markedly increasing, traditional structures of command are no longer valid, because everyone is captain. Which is why I am claiming that more than redefining leadership and rejigging company hierarchy, we need to move away from the notions of leadership and hierarchy completely.

I stole the term standalone complex from an animation called Ghost in the Shell, [which is set in a near future Japan, where cyborgization is complete (individuals exist with only a human brain, and everything else is robotic), and the network is everywhere and everything], because it perfectly describes the disorganized organization that I am seeking. In the series the term actually refers to the spontaneous nature of a networked society, how that complex network is “where unrelated, yet very similar actions of individuals create a seemingly concerted effort.” However I see the term more appropriately applied to the protagonists of the series itself, who are a group of ex military, ex police, extra-legal “security officers”, who fly around Tokyo catching political defectors, industrial criminals, communicating via cybernetic implants. There is an apparent hierarchy and division of labour within the unit, but one that seems to be only lightly enforced. Apart from the Major and the Chief, who give out orders, the agents are free to use their own methods to achieve the goal. It is this characteristic that I most interested in. At many points in the plot, agents act unilaterally and independently, with only brief communication between members. I saw that form of independent teamwork as being extremely valuable for me as a designer, because, as David Gray says, we are birds, and there are no bosses or managers in flocks.

The path to the independent team is simple, I think, as long as you keep a few things in mind.

1. Establish the goal, how you get there is up to you.

2. Communication is key, but decision making is also up to you.

2.1 Communication is two ways, seek information as well as receive.

2.2 Be aware of what is going on, and remember your purpose.

3. Parameters are important, but unless they affect the goal, they are completely free to change.

These are not self evident rules, but guidelines as gleaned from my experiences in projects and also from thinking about swarms and flocks. Ants don’t have meetings to decide where to dump garbage and when to gather food. They react to their environment and do what needs to be done. Birds don’t train to fly in formation, they go with the flow and follow a few leaders. Distributed leadership is also a useful model in the workplace, unless you think about leadership as I do. Leadership is only necessary when people are unable to make their own decisions. I am not advocating the removal of leaders or a new process, but rather the removal of the need for leadership.


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