The Architecture of Organizations: Lessons from Nature and Design to build Companies that work today
Updated: Jun 28
Many moons ago, I gathered in a room with hundreds of other students to use toothpicks to build towers while being watched carefully by observers. This wasn't Squid Games, but it felt like it. This was the second round of the POSSE Foundation’s college scholarship. It was in that game that I learned that building a pyramid out of toothpicks created a weak structure. Instead my team and I built a tower where the toothpicks connected to each other, diagonally, vertically, and horizontally and- I made it to the next round.
This spurred an interest in architecture that I explored, much to my counselor’s chagrin, at the Illinois Institute of Technology. While I didn’t fare too well with these star students as an economics major, I learned that architecture and design are essential tools we can use for things like organizations. The companies we work in have long been built hierarchically. For a long time, that worked. Humans generally have only been hierarchical for two percent of our existence, and it is largely correlated with the move from hunting and gathering, to the evermore complex social structures, and empire building that followed.
Hierarchy allowed us to strategize, to fight, and to build. But in the past few years I realized that our social and economic fabrics have begun to unwind. This tightly knit reality has been expanding. And I thought back to that exercise- our companies are toothpick pyramids, and the winds and pressures of today’s increasingly complex world are revealing an instability in that structure.
So I started to look towards architecture and came across nature-based architecture, such as biomimicry and organic architecture. These buildings are stronger, adaptable, and have less weak points because their weight is spread across the buildings. And here’s some of the lessons from those thoughts.
Know Who You Are
This one is tricky because we think this is obvious, but in companies whose leadership says the company is one thing, downstream people say it’s the other. This led me to think about fractals. We see these in nature from trees to clouds, but it also leads to good design.
Fractals are repeating patterns that show up everywhere but they also make structures strong. If you have patterns whose size or spacing changes abruptly, it could create stress or weak points that compromise the integrity of the entire structure.
One example is the Burj Khalifa: Its repeating triangular structures allow wind to flow smoothly, and have an increased surface area. The pressure isn’t just at the top or the bottom, it's spread across a wider area. making it more resilient.
In the same way, if your business is more connected in some ways and less in others it won’t be able to withstand the winds of change that hit the building. If responsibility is just given to those at the top external pressures might lead to stress at the bottom, or on the side.
From pilots to writers we are seeing the ways that these companies are built to put more stress on certain groups, and that has the potential to bring the whole company down. Departments and people feeling and seeing weaknesses aren't able to communicate with those that have the power to make decisions.
Transform and Change Shape
How do we adapt and change as we see supply chain issues, shifts in markets, and changing laws?
This made me think about homeomorphism in Geometry. This says that a shape can transform into another while maintaining its essential features. With all the changes happening today our companies should be flexible, meaning they should adapt and change over time in response to the conditions they find themselves in. But if we have companies that are hierarchical, they are rigid and static.
They are less flexible to changing conditions, and one toothpick that’s out of line could bring it down. It also means that it's important to have alignment in a company in all parts. Relying on hierarchy allows us to relax because that way we falsely believe our company structure is stable but the reality is that that formality often limits us from building true alignment. When the people around us feel connected to us, they will change shape with us when we need them to. But that means we must build alignment bidirectionally.
One of the cool things about using nature as inspiration is that it teaches us nothing ever flows one way. Whether its power, decisions, or making change, people can and will exert their power, but if we don't have structures that allow them to do so, it will happen through using an alternative structure: unionization, leaving the structure all together: resignations, or increasing the stress on the building: frustration.
Overall nature, and physics inherently, teaches us that energy comes from all parts of a system. We've build societies, and therefore companies that continuously violate these rules and have been built on a faulty model. But the best organizations are ones that are deeply interconnected, aligned, and allow thoughts, beliefs, and energy to come and go from every part of the company.
They are also ones that distribute power evenly across a structure, so when stress points come in, that responsibility is carried across the company, and the power to share those stress points can be shared in every way. As we are growing as a work culture of increased decentralization, complexity, and change, we can look to nature and our built environment to figure out how exactly we need to reorganize ourselves to build the futures we need.