I spent the previous weekend sailing on a 40ft long and 6 tonnes heavy sail boat. Over the past year I’ve mostly been sailing a much smaller, lighter and significantly faster (23ft 420 kg, 100 sqm downwind sails) extremely powerful performance boat.
These two boat types present very different experiences and challenges to their crews, and they are sailed with very different approaches: while the larger boat has a lot of mass, a large portion of it provided by the ballast in the keel, and therefore huge amounts of inertia and stability, the smaller boat has very little mass, almost no ballast, and therefore, no buil- in stability, and thus little inertia.
In other words: the larger boat is very “non-agile”, but a stable, predictable, and slow-moving (and turning!) comfortable “platform”, where the crew does not necessarily have to “stand on their toes” being constantly ready the next minor change in external conditions. It’s perfectly possible to organize crew work on such a boat by a “job description” document typical of any hierarchical organization, where each crew member only needs limited insight into the overall operation of the boat.
The benefit of a sail boat of this larger type is that it provides a very stable and comfortable ride in most conditions – at lest for the “executives” onboard – the downside is that provides a fairly slow, predictable and boring ride for the crew, allowing for a large part of the crew to be mentally very disconnected from the overall objectives as well as ship operations most of the time – thanks to stability and inertia, nothing dramatic (negative nor positive) tends to happen under a normal sail.
On the other hand, the smaller boat is extremely agile, reacting immediately to even the slightest change in conditions, and demanding not only constant full attention and focus of the crew, but also a very high degree of constant, coordinated & synchronized teamwork & adaptability from everyone onboard – without that high level of constant alertness from everyone onboard, the boat will capsize or throw you overboard in some other way.
Now, take this line of reasoning from the world of sailing to the world of business, for simplicity, the business of software development:
Which type of organization do you operate in, one that’s analogous to the “large boat”, with lots of mass and stability (provided by non-movable ballast), lots of inertia (provided by a truck load of internal processes, and business controls) and an crew organization based on vertical organizational hierarchy, with crews, mostly consisting of human automations, operating in a traditional vertical collectivism setup, or do you operate in something resembling the small boat, with no ballast, with stability and inertia replaced by balance and adaptability, where each individual is an intelligent decision making agent operating in a loosely coupled network of autonomous agents, all pursuing the same overall (business) outcomes….?
Over my career (as a sailor as well as a professional) I’ve experienced both types of organizations, and I know which one I prefer, and which one produces better business outcomes over the longer term.