Powering The Atomic Organization
The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus theorized the existence of atoms by wondering what would happen if you cut an apple into smaller…
The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus theorized the existence of atoms by wondering what would happen if you cut an apple into smaller and smaller pieces until you reached a point where the material would be so small as to be “uncuttable.” These uncuttable pieces he deemed atomos.
Today, thanks to multi-billion-dollar research facilities like CERN and its Large Hadron Collider, we can now answer questions about atoms and their attendant particles about which Democritus could only dream (like the Higgs boson, irreverently called the “God Particle” to the annoyance of many scientists).
An organization can be defined as two or more people acting in concert to achieve a common purpose. If we theorize the organization as an atomic field, what are the atomic forces that bind people together? The answers are found in the language of commitments and promises.
Fernando Flores was a young finance minister Chile when, in 1973, a new presidente took power in a coup d’état and Fernando found himself imprisoned for three years, separated from his wife and five children. Upon his release from prison, he brought his family to the United States and started a PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied computers and the philosophy of language. After finishing his PhD, he started companies, becoming a software entrepreneur and then an international business consultant. His book, Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, co-authored with Stanford professor Terry Winograd has been lauded as a masterwork in the field of artificial intelligence.
For Flores, an atom of work is the formation of a commitment by and between human beings in what he calls “ conversations for action. “ The commitment process unfolds in a defined cycle: a request for a commitment from an Customer to a Performer, a negotiation around conditions of satisfaction leading to a commitment (what the agile software world might call the “definition of done”), a performance phase leading to a declaration of fulfillment by the Performer, and a Customer review leading to a declaration of acceptance.
Commitments, properly understood, are affirmative speech acts; bold declarations of intent that constitute promises for which promisors can expect to be held fully accountable by their respective customers. There is no accountability absent a preexisting commitment. Without a commitment, to what would you presume to hold someone accountable?
These “work-atoms” are the substantive glue that binds human beings around a common purpose, inside or outside the formal organization. In post bureaucratic companies, recurring commitments between individuals can be digitally captured and rendered to produce commitment-based, dynamic organization charts utterly unlike the top-down hierarchies of the last 180 years. Commitments, whether long-term or vanishingly short-lived (like top quarks, lasting less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a second), provide the organizational scaffolding that allows excess bureaucracy to die peacefully.
As organizations race to become adaptive, agile and responsive in a world riven by pandemic and social upheaval, it’s crucial to understand, respect, and practice commitment making at a high level. Why? Because keeping commitments is the very definition of integrity. In a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, your own integrity is one thing over which you have total control.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.