Independent beats
An entangled mass of fools
Adventures abound

I'm a sucker for making loose analogies between weird nature stuff and management. For some reason, this weird thing's been on my mind for at least a year. I'm honestly just writing this post to get the thing out of my system. Apologies in advance.

Siphonophores [1, 2] are creepy (but super cool) colonial marine organisms that appear to behave as a singular creature. Some loosely cobbled-together facts on siphonophores:

  • comprised of units called zooids
  • each zooid is highly specialized, cannot survive on its own, and depends on the colony as a whole for survival
  • a single siphonophore can grow to be larger than a blue whale
  • they are carnivorous
  • they are active swimmers but would be torn apart by rough ocean currents
  • potentially lots of tentacles/branches

Sounds like a flat organizational structure to me. Now, I'm certainly not a fan of taking directions from obtuse and overly complex managerial hierarchies, but there's something to be said about having a group on the same page regarding a coherent direction, even if parties are in disagreement. What happens when each unit does whatever it wants? How does it affect the other units in the near vicinity? How does it affect the entire organization as a whole? Perhaps more importantly, how can it have the most impact on the entire organization as a whole without having direct influence over even neighboring organisms?

Some zooids are purely focused on consumption: ensnaring prey and keeping the whole alive. In the best of days, they contribute to growth and glut, allowing the colony to grow larger and stronger. In lean times, they may struggle to just maintain survival. Being a bioluminescent creature, you might say they're just trying to keep the lights on (sorry, not sorry). I don't think it's unfair to say that these units are creatures of circumstance, fueling the whole but having little to no say on where it'll be carried.

What's the play here then? Isn't it just growth at all costs? There's presumably safety in size and consequently an increasing safety margin against extinction. I'd argue that differing the growth strategy in different situations matters far less if there's no control over tomorrow's circumstances. Depending on the circumstances, at what point does a greedy one trick pony become unparalleled and undivided focus? Plenty of food? Better gorge ourselves. No food? Crap, guess there's nothing to do.

Perhaps it's unfair to say that the growth/HR zooids (I'm going to lump Gastrozoids and Palpons and Gonophores together in this wack analogy) have zero impact on the colony as a whole. Growth can both lead to bloat in oversaturated sections or fill urgent gaps. In a system with subsections presumed to be acting independently, substantial structural change can go unnoticed by individual organisms but at the same time greatly change how those same organisms now affect the whole.

In particular, nectophores, the organisms responsible for propulsion, would certainly propel the colony differently as the aggregate form changes, with each individual propulsion zooid none the wiser. Key nectophores may have more of an impact on the heading of the colony than others based on positioning within the whole alone. Some may steer more than others despite having less capability. In fact, it seems like the smaller, younger nectophores are frequently positioned to steer the colony more effectively than the larger, older nectophores. Is it unfair or more practical for the more seasoned veterans to propel the zooid company forward at the behest of the whippersnappers with a fresher perspective? Our gelatinous siphonophore compatriots seem to have settled on their own strategy.

I think it's a bit noteworthy that while siphonophores may branch, it doesn't seem like the individual zooids greatly cluster to any significant degree, perhaps suggesting that there's a practical limit to how many contributors this structure can ideally support in any given subsection. New branches may serve redundant purposes as pre-existing ones, but those branches are far more effective than a singular massive growth when coordination is missing/limited. Or, zooids just need to be more friendly with each other. Icebreakers and nametags at the next all-hands, yeah?

So technically I probably lied earlier. Scientists don't think individual zooids act entirely independently. There's definitely some analogous but primitive central nervous system at work within the colony, but they haven't yet figured out the details. Arguably, that's also true for a good number of organizations.

In that sense, let's go back to talking about structure: given limited to no coordination, how would you best allocate resources for future growth and development? I've heard stories of companies pitting entire departments and sections against each other on the same sort of project, with the loser getting dissolved or absorbed elsewhere in the company. If survival of the fittest can work between colonies, then why not also between parts of the same company. We can just leave the decision making to external forces. Alternatively, stories of micromanaging CEOs/founders directing every step and strategic maneuver of the whole are just as prevalent, environmental or market forces be damned. In the former case, whether driven by a lack of managerial and oversight resources or a macabre belief in the divinity of natural selection forces, it would seem that management converges to a resource allocation problem. Are there or are there not sufficient participants in each branch to attempt the desired outcome, and depending on variance in performance for the same or similar conditions, how many branches do we need to actualize the desired goal for the group as a whole?  

A reasonable counterargument to all this is: why not just re-assign individuals and re-specialize? Or better yet, include individuals with multiple specialties? Well, I just don't think that's really practical in the real world. This may be contentious, but if you know exactly what you need done and how to execute it, I'd think you'd always hire a specialist over a jack of all trades. That's not to say that a jack of all/many trades can't get the job done, but the quality and efficiency of the work done should be night and day. That perhaps brings up another interesting point for resource/workforce-limited scenarios, where the group may be forced to lean on any bit of cross-specialty overlap it can find, as new specialists simply aren't coming to save the day in any capacity. Going back to an earlier point, an individual with expanded breadth but limited depth may have as much impact as another with significantly greater depth if they're positioned differently.

All in all, the rambling above is mainly to say: organizations can learn a lot from siphonophores:

  • positioning and structure may play a bigger role than direct coordination
  • growth in size may just be adding branches, but that's not necessarily bad
  • the strongest and most capable individuals may not provide the most impact depending on where they end up