Connected Companies & Coupled Canoes

“Change before you have to.” Jack Welch

You are at the front of a floating canoe, close to the shore. You jump, expecting to land on the beach easily. Instead you land in the water. Why? Conversely to bring an supertanker to a stop, its engines are typically cut off about 25 km from port. Why? The answers are both to do with momentum, an often underrated quality in life and business, not to mentioned marine vehicles [ref].

Anyway, I’m very interested in exploring what structures best enable positive change to happen. Is it the sheer power of the supertanker or the agility of the canoe. Both have their respective strengths, but as the above examples show, also some crucial weaknesses.

There certainly isn’t a shortage of problems to solve and i don’t think we are currently well equipped to tackle them. I’m coming round to the idea that the answer lies with building and sustaining momentum. However not the brute force momentum of supertanker-like organisations, but rather the momentum of a flotilla of lightly coupled canoe-like pods. I appreciate the analogy is perhaps somewhat stretched so let me explain a little.

Connected Companies

I have just finished reading Dave Gray’s book, The Connected Company. It’s well worth a read. The first half is a now fairly familiar review of how and why the world is changing with lots of case studies (mostly from US multinational companies). However the second half is a well thought through description of what a Connected Company is. You could read the book or else check out the video below for a good intro

One of the things he talks about in both the book and the video are that companies and cities are both complex systems. However as you triple the size of a company workforce, profit per worker is on average cut in half (the 3:2 rule). Conversely when you double the size of an urban population the productivity goes up instead? Why is it? It’s because both cities and companies are made of (mostly) loosely coupled people who adapt to their environment, and yet we still design and think about organisations as machines that we can design and manage.

However, as Dave argues in the book, the world is changing faster than we can feasibly respond to, certainly at supertanker scales. So we need to shift our mindsets and structures to be much more agile, responsive and ‘podular’. He describes podular system [ref] as distributing power to pods which are small, autonomous units that are enabled and empowered to deliver stuff fast that people value.

Platforms = Power

The most interesting bit for me in the book (and not in the video above) is as he goes on to say that pods need a platform. A platform could mean infrastructure, a brand, a place, a set of standards, and most importantly a set of shared values. These are essential to ensure consistent behavior when you lack a formal hierarchy.

 “We build platforms not products” Google

I think we are seeing the rise of pod like action at small scales but what we are currently lacking are the platforms to enable them to have real impact at scale. To go back to our canoe analogy for a moment, we can all sail independently and freely though can group together in a flotilla when there is a need for collective momentum, such as jumping to the shore which is so difficult on our own.

Yet in some cases we might want to cluster and connect for usually just a short time which gives the same momentum of the supertanker, but can equally be easily decoupled once our collective objective is completed. A great example of this is the Arab Spring last year.

The Spaces In-Between

So I believe we ought to strive to build the platforms upon which we can create for ourselves and solve our own problems. Large and small organisations need each other more than ever and yet are increasingly worlds apart. I think we need more platforms, or possibly more bridges to connect large and small, and get the best of both worlds.

In a small way we at 100%Open are aspiring to build and become a platform ourselves. In our case it’s about bridging large and small companies as well as bridging commercial and social objectives. However this also means creating a set of tools, a gang of like-minded souls, spaces and networks to meet and exchange ideas. There is plenty of scope and demand for new brokers and new platforms. I guess I see a real need and opportunity for people and platforms to occupy the spaces in-between. If we do that then just maybe we can be more effective and have positive impact.

by Roland

Image courtesy of Canoe Too


  1. I’m loving your blogs Roland.

    Pods, coming of age, it all sounds like Owen Wilson in You, me and Dupree.

    More seriously, have you read Maverick by Brazilian entrepreneur – Semler. Now there’s a nation of entrepreneurs and floating canoes!

  2. Maverick is great. Some of his talks on You Tube are hilarious but also really insightful.

    But you, me and dupree I haven’t seen, but it’s going on my Love Film list 🙂

  3. […] No I don’t think so. In fact I think it is a dangerous illusion. Smaller companies are more open and more collaborative by their very nature – because they have to and realise they have no choice. They aren’t blinded by the illusion of economies of scale. It is increasingly easier and cheaper to transact externally than internally. I am a fan of Dave Gray’s connected company book where he talks about pods that are connected by a platform (e.g. tech, culture, space…) and can be powerful together occassionally but most operate as agile and autonomous units. Blogged about that a while back too here. […]

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