Why your organisation should look less like a human and more like a jellyfish

By Emily Dent, Coaching Partner at &us

Photo Credit: NOAA

I was watching an episode of The Octonauts the other day. (For those of you who don’t have toddlers, The Octonauts are a collective of animals on a mission to Explore! Rescue! and Protect! the creatures of the ocean), and I came across the Siphonophore. 

The Siphonophore is a creature that has broken from the traditional way of organising its central functions. Rather than one egg replicating DNA into integrated structures like humans have, the one egg produces highly specialised ‘Zooids’ that have one function, and one function only. E.g. ones that swim but can’t eat and one that can sting but can’t swim. Each is dependent on the other to do what it can’t do. The whole organism is produced in an extremely precise pattern that means these functions can depend on each other to survive. Think of it like a complex colony with shared DNA that is codependent and unable to live separately. 

The terrifying Portuguese Man O’ War is a Siphonophore. The bits that sting are independent from the bits that digest, and both are independent from any central nervous system. Each part of the organism is independently ‘intelligent’ and doesn’t have to wait for instructions to act. This makes them fast, effective and deadly. 

In other words, it is an organism that has cracked how to be highly adaptive and effective without the need for a central organising structure, but instead through effectively designed and curated teams who are working together to thrive. 

Organisations like this already exist – for example Haier, Buurtzoorg and Morning Star – who have evolved their models to something like a Siphonophore, with brilliant commercial effect. But most businesses are stuck with structures that don’t suit their purposes any longer. 

The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the current default organisational model – based on Victorian workhouses of command and control – is inadequately set up to react dynamically, sustainably, to opportunity or threat on an ongoing basis.  

If we designed our organisational structures to be more like Siphonophores –  highly autonomous, yet collaborative teams reacting to the external environment without the need for a centralised structure, how much more ‘deadly’ would our organisations be? 

A good place to start would be to identify some places you can create more freedom for teams. Here’s some tips for leaders looking to do just that. 

For the last year, we’ve been working with a few brave organisations who are on a journey to becoming places where innovation is inevitable, and we’ve developed a tool which assesses just how Siphonophore your organisation is. 

If you’re interested in hearing more, get in touch!