3.03 – Clock of the Long Now

So we’ve set up the SPACE part – now let’s talk about the PEOPLE.

In chapter 7 of The Clock of the Long Now, the second Stewart Brand book which serves as the key inspiration for this thesis, Brand repeats the ‘shearing layers’ mechanic that he borrows from architect Frank Duffy in How Buildings Learn, but he kicks it up to eleven to describe the way that entire civilisations work.

“I propose six significant levels of pace and size in the working structure of a robust and adaptable civilization. From fast to slow the levels are: Fashion/Art; Commerce; Infrastructure; Governance; Culture; Nature.

Of course, Duffy and Brand aren’t the only ones to notice these systems. He references Ecologists R.V. O’Neill and C. S. Holling as pioneering this thinking in the study of nature. (Note: “Buzz Hollings”, as he’s referred to in HBL, has taken on a more formal, initialled status it seems. We can make of that what we like.)

What’s key here is what it applied in comparison to the layers in How Buildings Learn. It’s moved from leaning more into a factual description of how the building works, to an analysis of the benefits of why a system like this might work better for a given population. From TCOTLN:

“How do they manage change, and how do they absorb and incorporate shocks? The answer appears to lie in the relationship between components in a system that have different change rates and different scales of size… these systems yield as if they were malleable.”

This idea reached out from the book and slapped me about the face a couple of times. It brought into focus lots of half-formed ideas and captured observations about why large organisations move slowly, and also why getting everyone in such companies to move quickly just doesn’t work. If you see a whole company, or even just one division, as a single system, you miss the subtle layers that make these companies work. Brand continues:

“The combination of fast and slow components make the system resilient, along with the way the differently paced parts affect each other. Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast gets all the attention, slow has all the power… In a healthy society each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, safely sustained by the slower levels below and kept invigorated by the livelier levels above”

What does this mean, then? Well, for example, it means that it’s not just that you can’t get a whole company of significant scale to work according to Agile (capital A) principles, it’s that you shouldn’t try either. The faster layers are there to generate the heat and noise that is innovation, but it’s the slower components within a system that build these into an organisation’s long-term future.

Anyway, to go with the SPACE layers, I’ve used the above thinking about civilisations to create a set of PEOPLE layers for companies. These aren’t fixed roles for people (eg. marketing people don’t solely act in the marketing layer), but rather they are the things that people do together. So, from slow to fast;

CULTUREAs Brand writes in the TCOTLN, “Culture is the work of whole peoples”. I don’t think you can just consider this to JUST be the culture of the company internally, because no matter how any company tries (and a fair few Silicon Valley firms are trying), you can’t completely isolate a company from the culture around it. I’m going to explore the idea of what I’m (for now) calling the Culture Bridge – a company can’t cut itself off, but it can decide to an extent what to let in.

LEADERSHIP – Building out from what I’ve learned working with Tracey Camilleri up at Saïd Business School in Oxford, I consider leadership in this sense not to be about the person at the top of the pyramid, but instead the person who takes it upon themselves to provide platforms for the company to survive and thrive upon. This can come from those in formal positions of leadership, but it’s also all of the informal attempts by people to create new platforms because they see things others don’t.

MARKETING – In describing Marketing, I shall default to McKitterick’s here; “The principal task of the marketing function… is not so much to be skilful in making the customer do what suits the interests of the business as to be skilled in conceiving and then making the business do what suits the interests of the customer”. So by “Marketing”, I mean everything the business does for the customer, from making products and services, to creating communications, to customer service departments.

COMMERCE – Weirdly, we often think of finance as being the people who slow things up, when actually, this is probably one of the fastest layers in the system in how it affects everyone. This is largely because of the rhythm dictated by reports (quarterly, half-yearly and annual), and of course the living, breathing data stream of sales figures. Too often, the demands of the COMMERCE layer in business prevails at the expense of anything else, which is often dangerous if not fatal for a business.

ACTIONS – Finally, the fastest layer in a business is the way people work, on a daily and weekly basis. What do we do, what common things to we default to in order to get shit done, what habits do we have, what gets picked up and put down, what did we all start doing because Steve found a video of it last week. It’s almost like the script for the play of your working life, complete with stage directions. And more often than not, when you feel like you’re doing loads but not really getting anywhere, you’re probably spending all of your time in this layer.


Right then, there we have it. Five PEOPLE layers, to go with the five SPACE layers. Next, I’ll talk about how putting both together in one model helps aid our understanding of how companies really work.


PREVIOUSLY – 3.02 – How Buildings Learn




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