We started a NO by accident rather than design: we couldn’t afford employees. This turned out to be a fortuitous impediment. It stopped us being traditional. When our family company of 3 found itself represented in 30 countries via 300 independent colleagues, we knew we had discovered something special.
What’s a NO?
A NO is characterized by three things:
Independence: Members of a network—individuals, business units or companies—enjoy autonomy.
Community: When members connect, converse, and collaborate, community forms. The leader hosts this process.
Shared stuff: Independent members are united via shared protocols, products, purpose or passions.
How is this inspired by the internet?
The internet is a NO, as well as a physical network, but its organization receives little attention. This is surprising given it might be mankind’s greatest infrastructure achievement. How can an organization with no CEO, no HQ and no Operating Manual do all that?
In the 60s, each computer network had its own protocol and often a terminal to match. To talk to another network you had to leave one terminal and log on elsewhere. This clumsiness was eradicated by protocols agreed between networks—hence, internet. This triggered an innovation explosion.
Who leads the Internet? The Internet Engineering Task Force maintains the shared protocols, but is this leadership? How about Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg? What about the countless other individuals who contribute? Aren’t they also leaders? Isn’t it more accurate to say the Internet is leader-full? If so, we need a new wisdom of leadership.
The collaboration that started the internet, illustrates how a small change to an adaptive system can produce major effects downstream. This is the deep simplicity behind the internet’s success. It inspires us to seek our own deep simplicity.
How is a NO fit for the future?
It’s in the design, which predisposes a NO to beresilient, innovative and leader-full.
Resilient: There has been a major disruption every few years during our 20 years as a NO: think financial crises, terrorism, tsunamis and pestilence. But we’ve still grown at over 10% per year, and been profitable in each. A NO is resilient, as the internet also attests. This is an important insight. Autonomy begets variety, and variety begets resilience. Fitness for the future demands resilience.
Innovative: We have innovation in spades; sometimes uncomfortably so. But we wouldn’t change it. The internet stands as a poster-child for innovation.
Leader-full: Hierarchies pay huge sums for leaders, while NOs are full of them. In the case of the internet, some of them are leading while still in college!
Resilient, innovative and leader-full: all fit-for-the-future characteristics of a NO.
How about fit for people?
Allow me an example.
When we met, Joan was a young mother of three torn between her management career and her desire to ‘be there’ for her children. We invited her to be the hub for our South Asian network. She agreed, and formed her own company to do so. She manages our finances, stock, and key relationships in her own way, in her own time. E-mails are often sent after home-work is done, or from a foreign city when she is managing the national sports team one of her children is part of. Fourteen years later, her children are exiting high school.
“I suppose you’ll want to leave us now?” I probed.
“Oh no,” she said “I’d love to stay.”
“But why?” I replied. “We don’t pay you enough, do we?”
“It’s not the money” she said. “What you gave me at first was freedom, but now you give me identity.”
“My friends are known as ABC’s wife or XYZ’s mother,” she explained. “I’m the owner of my own business. I have an identity. I enjoy that.”
In truth, we didn’t give Joan an identity. All we gave her was the freedom to craft a life. Her achievement is a personal work of art. She gave value to things we could not imagine, or match; like well-adjusted children, and identity.
In May, Joan attended a network meeting run by our Romanian colleagues. (We are leader-full.) She also brought her now 20-year-old daughter. (We welcome families.) A first-timer remarked: “I have never seen such an harmonious merger of professionalism and pleasure.” It’s clear that high engagement, low people turnover, and work-life balance are fit-for-people attributes of NOs. Traditional organizations lust after these attributes.
Where’s the catch?
Leaders must change. Traditional leadership is based in misleading metaphors from the military, missionaries and mechanics. In all my exposure to the best management training money could buy, no one ever canvassed the idea of a NO. And the effort to root out old beliefs is frustrated by a press that devotes most column inches to organizations boasting heroes. As one editor said, “Noah is a much better story than flood control.” NOs respond to a leadership style closer to a host than a hero: Our role is hosting communities.
A NO is not negative. It is decidedly positive. It draws inspiration from the internet; it is fit for the future; and it is clearly fit for people. I am resolved to help others discover the joy, the success and the sheer humanity of the NO.