Bottom-Up Strategies in Business, Part 3

While economist Tim Harford emphasizes the need to transform large organizations and Peter Sims offers ways to spark creativity, in part 3 of this bottom-up strategies series, Skeptic magazine editor and former bicycle racer Michael Shermer, author of The Mind of the Market, discusses biology, psychology, and the evolution of complex adaptive systems such as (courtesy of Wikipedia, a complex adaptive system built using bottom-up strategies), “the stock market, social insect and ant colonies, the biosphere and the ecosystem, the brain and the immune system, the cell and the developing embryo, manufacturing businesses and any human social group-based endeavour in a cultural and social system such as political parties or communities”:

Complex adaptive systems appear designed from the top down, but in fact as they evolve they construct objects from the bottom up through functional adaptations….

Life and economies are not intelligently designed from the top down; they arise spontaneously out of simpler systems from the bottom up. The explanation for this design may be found in the sciences of emergence and complexity theory, in which complex systems arise from simple systems. Life and economies, like language, writing, the law, civilizations, and cultures, all arise spontaneously as self-organized emergent properties from within systems themselves and without the aid of a blueprint design by a clever engineer.

Shermer enjoys making me wish I were a software engineer again and worked at Google:

When you enter the lobby you encounter lava lamps, a piano, and a giant global projection of a rotating earth with the numbers of search queries represented by rays of colored light beamed into space. A giant white board called “Google OS” (Operating System) is chock-ablock with multicolored Expo Marker–produced geek-o-centric flow-chart goals for the company, such as Develop AI, Orbital Mind Control, Google Football League (GFL), Buy New Zealand, Build Singularity, Crop Circles, Childcare Kinderplex, and, appropriately, Elimination of Evil. It is toward this latter goal that the Google environment is structured, starting with its corporate slogan, “Don’t Be Evil.”

Environments are both physical and psychological, and the Google lobby sets the tone for what awaits inside the glass doors. Speaking of which, glass doors and walls are transparent, and transparency is one of the foundations of trust. Transparency is apparent even in what millions of people from around the world are searching for, in an electronic board that displays scrolling search queries (presumably screened for X-rated requests).

The idea of working in a goldfish bowl sounds frightening, and the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, disrespects our privacy even more, but the Google environment might be fun:

Hallways contain bicycles and large rubber exercise balls. Googlers—as employees are known—work in small group clusters, sharing space with couches and dogs. Googlers work hard because they play hard, and the Google campus is loaded with workout rooms, video games, foosball tables, pool tables, Ping-Pong tables, volleyball courts, and assorted other recreational conveniences. And if all that were not enough to make employees think twenty-seven times before pilfering pens and Post-it notes or embezzling checks and click-ad funds, free meals are available at assorted on-site restaurants, and numerous snack bars offer a variety of goodies to munch on between meals.

Shermer summarizes his thesis:

We are remarkably irrational creatures, driven as much (if not more) by deep and unconscious emotions that evolved over the eons as we are by logic and conscious reason developed in the modern world…. What may seem like irrational behavior today may actually have been rational a hundred thousand years ago.

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