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Monthly Archives: May 2011

One of the most admired and valuable firms (both in terms of brand value and market value) is also one of the most closed when it comes  to the way it is organised. Secrecy seems the middle name of this icon of design: Apple.

The beauty of the Apple products and their usability are nearly beyond discussion. Whether this beauty is mirrored in the organisation remains mostly a big question mark. Recently Fortune Magazine revealed some insights on the management of Apple, although not confirmed by the organisation.

What stroke me as remarkable is the unity of the company. It is managed as one entity, an entity of 50.000 people. Everything comes together in one inner circle of executives each responsible for a part/function of the organisation. This group of executives meets weekly (it is sought) to discuss all important projects. Every week the whole company is reviewed, discussed and planned. And with very clear  and direct responsibilities, the execution is fast and not hindered by any kinds of organisational layers that characterises many ‘normal’ organisations. This undivided one is also shown in the way the P&L is set up. There is only one P&L, the nearly 100 billion dollar P&L of Apple!

This managing as one looks like a very remarkable and unusual way to organise such a large corporation. At first sight.

It may as well be key to what Steve Jobs described, when asked to explain the way Apple is managed, as  Apple being run like a start-up. And it might proof to be equally important to the development of  integrated products with a complete and unique user experience, marketed in powerful and secretive ways.

The concept of the undivided one has, in many aspects, made Apple a company hors catégorie.

A very strong theme, uncompromisingly applied, can be a source of beauty. And therein lies the beauty of the management of one .

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Objectively, a price tag of €4000,- for a handbag is insane. Subjectively, you are lucky when allowed to buy a Hermes Kelly handbag.

Objectivity is a trait admired and strived for in management. A clear and untroubled view on how organisations work and an analytical and rational mindset is the prerequisite for managers. That certainly counts for the productivity side of any organisation, from the allocation of capital to the efficiency of processes. But the more soft sides of business are also subject to objectivity. In the marketing and customer side of the business, objectivity and rationality are definitely standard procedure, not only in researching and understanding the customer, but also in the value of a brand. Even employee engagement and team effectiveness are increasingly subject to objective measure and analysis.

One of the characteristics of objectivity is distance, distance between yourself and the object that you study or manage. Deep involvement and connection with the object should be avoided to secure the objectivity and the clearness of mind to judge, to decide and to act.

The opposite of objectivity is subjectivity.

When it comes to beauty however, subjectivity comes definitely into play. As beauty is only partially objective, it also is very subjective. It has to do with connection, emotional involvement, irrationality, feeling, epiphany, dreams, coincidence, magic. Beauty is more about being attached and less about the detachment of objectivity.

An immersion in the environment, a biased view, a deeply felt connection, an irrational obsession with the quality of work, to name a few aspects of subjectivity, do enable beauty. Not only in the arts, also in organisations. And although thinking about management and organisation is dominated by objectivity, successful organisations have that subjectiveness; that ‘I cannot pinpoint it, but there is something’ factor of success. There is something, but it is diametrical to the mindset of objectivity.

You can fight it, the power of subjectivity, but you can also embrace it and leave room for wonder.

Subjective engagement with reality enables new solutions beyond the realm of objectivity. Solutions that touch people, just because of that subjectivity. Solutions that might proof, with hindsight, very sound, objectively spoken.

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Customers pay for beauty and subjectivity: a Hermes Kelly handbag starts at €4000,-, if you are lucky enough to be allowed to buy one.

The design of organisation compared to the design of cities, landscapes and dwellings is a fairly temporary affair. Although there is the force of the bulldozer, the effects of human interference in our built environment are mostly not so easy to reverse. Organisations are, compared to our artefacts of steel and concrete, very flexible and passing affairs. The average life expectancy of an organisation is much shorter than a city extension. We are talking years versus centuries. That is one of reasons why the profession of architect and urban planning came to life. It is a sensible thing to think about measures that have a longstanding impact and plan them carefully. The space occupied is not easy to reclaim or to change.

The amounts of time and money on strategy and planning of organisations are enormous. The money spend on strategy and change management through external consultants exceeds the amount  spend on designers, architects and urban planners many times. This a kind of paradox when you look at the aspect of life expectancy and the measure of flexibility.

Seen from this perspective, it seems complete madness to reduce any effort for spatial planing as currently put into practice by the Dutch government.

This madness puts any writing on what elements in the design of an organisation can add to its beauty, in perspective.

Apparently society (at least the Dutch, forgetting their long tradition of good design) let forego chances of good design and careful planning and live willfully  with the result.  At the same time this hopefully short-lived absence of sound thinking, makes the absolute necessity to keep thinking and designing whenever we have the opportunity, even bigger. And opportunities can be created!

Design itself  as an element of beauty. And as for organisations, we are in a lucky position, because mistakes can relative easily be repaired.

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Differences between the various parts of an organisation are meaningful. Variety is the result of specialisation and focus in customer segments, abilities and expertise, capital expenditure, profit centers, responsibilities, products, geographic coverage, etc. There are numerous ways to divide and manage. Designing the parts and their boundaries is an important element of organisational design.

Without differences there is little use in bundling the different(?) activities in any form of organisation. The added value of any organisation exist because of the differences. Even in the most loosely coupled form, there is some kind of specialisation. On the other hand a collections of specialised elements without any of form of unity and mutual benefit is not very efficient. Recent actions among investors to demand splitting (listed) organisations into separate, more valuable parts is a proof of that point.

The balance between benefits of specialisation and the added value of unity is delicate one. Traditional trade-offs become obsolete with the connectivity made possible with modern technology and the current and reliable transport, transaction and juridical systems.

The analogy of ton sur ton might be useful and inspirational. Ton sur ton is a delicate colour scheme of adjoining colors. Within a base colour there is a large variety of shades. The differences in shade allow all kinds of accents and nuances, while there is a clear relationship between the elements. The ton sur ton principle prevent clashing colours.

While savouring the variations of expertise and focus, many organisations also want a common element (colour) that characterises their identity. Choosing the right palette of colours and mixing a wide variety of shades is an art and requires skills and knowledge. Is management any different?

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Well balanced. A sophisticated trade-off between countervailing forces. An equilibrium of two or more opposing elements. When things that are worthwhile, but do not match automatically, we can look for solutions that minimises the conflict, but leave the qualities intact. Balance does not reduce the quality of one of the objects, but emphasises the differences in an intelligent, non confrontational way.

In organisation design balance is often applied, an attractive, although often difficult to achieve, solution. The balance between a clear common vision and the individual preferences. The balance between specialisation and collaboration. The balance between short and long-term. The balance between a product and customer focus. The balance between the individual ambition and collective team effort.

And indeed, when we strike the balance, there is all the reason to enjoy it. But balance is a tricky thing. Sometimes the balance, although clever, gives a feeling of instability. The balance becomes superficial. Balance for the sake of balance, for the sake of not having to choose. And as a result we have to put a lot of effort in maintenance of that balance. The balances proofs to be intrinsically unstable. All the effort to establish the balance seems to be in vain. It just doesn’t work.

So the beauty of balance is not as obvious as it seems. Sometimes balance is not the best way forward,  sometimes there is a need for choice. Bad balance is ugly. In organisational design and in architectural design. The line between good and bad balance is thin.

The balanced barn, designed by MVRDV makes that very tangible.

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It is an intriguing building, that makes us aware that balance is not straightforward.

The Dutch company called CDEF Holding (Cada Dia Es una Fiesta) is a special kind of organisation. CDEF exploits work and meeting places (Seats2Meet) and a social network (Mindz.com) for independent professionals. It has evolved into a very successful concept where people come to work and meet in an attractive and flexible environment. And it keeps evolving.

A trait of the organisation that triggered me, was the concept of what I call ‘every day strategy day’. It is a way of doing where every decision that the organisation needs to take, is seen as an opportunity to strengthen its collective view and strategy. Strategy not seen as something that is thought out by the top and disseminated over the organisation, but as a daily routine for all involved to question current practices and ways of doing.

One of the examples is that when the company had to decide on renewing their coffee machines, they asked themselves whether they were in the coffee business, as there were very good alternatives for excellent coffee nearby. (Seats2Meet provides free coffee and lunch for all visitors).

The traditionally as straightforward regarded decision to replace a coffee machine was used to discuss within the organisation, the essence and raison d’être of the company. And at the end of the day, it strengthened the collective view and reinforced understanding of where the organisation is heading. Pretty powerful stuff! And on a daily base.

Every day strategy day is not only a way to avoid continuing activities that no longer add true value and to collectively innovate everything you do (and be true avant-gardists), it also is a practice that continuously involves people and builds a collective view on the business.

It is an interesting element of true beauty, that could be tried in even the most capital-intensive and standardised companies. Or should you wait until the central planning committee comes with its next five year plan?

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Picture the heated discussion in the pressroom with headstrong journalists and opinionated editors, all very passionate and dedicated professionals that do not shy away from intellectual discourse and political arguments. How are they able to produce a dally newspaper? I once asked this question to an editor of a leading business newspaper and after some thought his answer was: the deadline.

The deadline as the organising principle. Everybody can discuss everything, have opinions, by the time of the deadline there has to be edited, quality texts, headlines and pictures.

Eric Schmid recently said the something similar about Google: discord and deadline as an important management principle.

It is a fascinating concept:  stimulate a culture of challenge and wild, intensely discussed ideas and impose a deadline, the point in time where things have to be resolved. And after the delivery, the cycle towards the next deadline can start again.

This idea of dynamic and order can be applied in many facets of the organisation. It is the art of building deadlines in an organisations, the equivalent of the printing press. And of establishing a free atmosphere that stimulates discussion, free thinking and creativity, the equivalent of a French salon where people discussed their views freely.

Deadlines can have various forms, such as the spring and  autumn shows of big fashion labels, the seasonal program of a theater or the advertising campaign before Easter. Organisation that not have this kind of deadline connected to the nature of their business, can impose self-created deadlines on themselves, such as the more or less set dates for Apple to release new products (ipods always for the holiday season).

These deadlines should be the stimulant for creativity and not a straightjacket that inhibits free interactions. It takes some practice to get that right. But beauty does not come easy.

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