phi (totient) wrote,

Mark Olson was right about big ops

As many people who have ever stood still for five minutes within my earshot know, I believe that organizations pass through phase transitions as they grow, with the major inflection points being at 10, 50, 250, 1250, and I speculate 2x5^n for any integer n. The two major ways that I model this are organizational fanout, wherein the maximum number of reports is 10 and the best achievable indirect reporting efficiency is 50%; and communications modes, which relate to Dunbar's number and the limits of human comprehension. Communications mode shifts each have a different description and there is enough material that I will probably eventually write a book about them, so I won't describe them here.

A consequence of this, as again many of my readers will have heard me say already, is that as organizations approach one of these inflection points from below, they begin to adapt to keep their communications and control structures working. They optimize for output from individual contributors at the expense of encouraging teamwork and delegation to keep their headcount from rising. They put infrastructure in place to smooth the existing, but fraying, means of communication. There are countless such knobs and I'm sure my book will include descriptions of many of them.

But for the organization to successfully pass through a transition point, all of these knobs, having been turned all the way up, will have to be turned all the way in the other direction. The organization suddenly needs entirely new communications infrastructure. Organizational cohesion will have to be replaced by unit cohesion. Delegation and teamwork suddenly takes priority over individual output. Schedules and timelines will suddenly be driven from different points as communications modes shift1. And so on.

Note, importantly, that it is not enough to recognize an optimization as being specific to the lower approach to the phase transition. To turn the knobs the other way, you have to know what the other way is. You can't just rip the knob off.

Big Ops is a knob. We use it in volunteer organizations of 249 people to keep the singly-indirected, centralized communications flowing. When the organization reaches 251 people it begins to drop information -- sometimes critical information.

Boskone recognized this as a problem and tried to solve it by ripping the knob off, with predictable results. Arisia seems to have found the other end of the knob, because the Ops desk at Arisia 2013 was positively boring. Information was flowing around it, and getting where it needed to go. We threw so many replacement options at the problem that it is hard to say which one is the other end of the knob, but I think one thing that really helped was having so many people still reading their email at con, so that information could reach, for instance, hotel liaisons directly from the departments that needed to reach them, without Ops having to get involved.

We do still need an Ops desk. They will still need to be prepared to deal with the kinds of big-Ops activities that used to happen there. But if this year is indicative, Big Ops is withering away.

1. more on this in another post, because it is a brand new discovery for me.

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