The unruly rise of the dis-organisation

08 February 2016 -


A story of Swiss cheese and Post-it notes – and how even the most unexpected events can lead to success when managed in the right way

David Shannon

In the Alpine meadows of north-west Switzerland, cows fed on nothing but fresh grass and hay produce rich milk. Unpasteurised, this is turned into semi-hard, nutty-flavoured cheese. About 40% of the carbon dioxide gas produced is absorbed into the solid cheese, but a small amount remains as gas, where it forms holes.

To many cheese-makers, these holes would be a clear sign of imperfection.

However, these randomly distributed holes have become accepted as an integral part of the Emmentaler Switzerland brand. In fact, the integration, size, distribution and proportion of the holes has made it perhaps the world’s most famous cheese.

All cheese and no holes

Most organisations get the cheese, but don’t understand the holes. They are controlled organisations, built to enable accountability and assure governance. They rely on structures, procedures and budgets. They are dependable but essentially unadaptive and, in a changing world, they are ripe for extinction.

Unplanned, unexpected events matter and they can add considerable value.

Comprehensive governance should embrace them. Here are three real examples of non- controlled, non-managed events that added value:

  • A chance informal meetingb y a director outside the office led a prestigious organisation in the middle of its HQ relocation to re-orientate its project entirely. This volte-face occurred over a few hours, and resulted in spectacularly improved benefits;
  • John Timpson, chairman of the UK shoe repair and multi-service company Timpson, found an employee carrying out unauthorised paid work mending watches in a shoe repair outlet. He immediately appointed the employee to roll out this service across the whole franchise, resulting in an extra £13m turnover;
  • A paper inadvertently taken from another person’s stack at a seminar led via resulting introductions to the rapid improvement of a company’s processes. The intervention greatly helped realise a substantial increase in its value.

Embracing the whole

So how do we incorporate such disorganisation into our practice? Consider if you’ve experienced any of these:

  • A disruptive employee leaves you, only to join contacts in a related venture that proves highly successful;
  • You lose a sales opportunity to a competitor whose product and service is not measurably superior to yours;
  • You spot one of your under-appreciated intellectual assets being exploited by others.

If you have, it’s probably down to a failure to manage the whole business – and to not appreciating the significance of small, non-core elements.

Think about how the world’s great organisations already behave. IBM overtook UNIVAC by adapting scientific research machines for payroll administration in response to an unsought enquiry. Microsoft pursues a collegiate ‘democratic’ style, respecting insights and intelligence at every level. 3M, in what is probably the best-known example of unplanned innovation, developed Scotch Tape, Post-it notes and Thinsulate.

This is the way that wider society is headed: more flexible organizational boundaries; enhanced intrapreneurship; more engagement with the millennial generation; greater liberty at work.

We can learn a lot from quantum mechanics, which has transformed the way we think about physics.

Applied to biology, we now for the first time have explanations for the working of photosynthesis, long-distance migrations, the senses of smell and hearing and, tentatively, of consciousness, life and death.

By focusing on small, disorganised, unmanaged events, understanding their patterns and being prepared to reach a new appreciation of previously inexplicable effects, we could greatly improve our ability to govern and manage organisations. This ‘quantum management’ thinking should lead us into world-class organisations that are more creative, resilient and adaptable – and a delight to work in.

This article was first published in the Winter edition of Professional Manager

David Shannon is managing director of Oxford Project Management

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