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Max St John

Designing a business for emergence and complexity

Initiative map

Here at NM HQ, we’re using a new approach to redesigning our business that I think is completely unique and possibly revolutionary.

It’s based initiative and emergence, and perfectly suited to creating decentralised and purpose-driven businesses.

It’s born out of the Source principles work of Peter Koenig, and has been created by NM associate and Very Clear Ideas founder Charles Davies. Two people who are proving very influential in our ongoing transformation.

I want to share how this is working in case it’s of value to others.

First a bit of back-filling

We started life as a web design and build agency, became a marcomms agency then a consulting firm. Over time our team make-up changed a bit to meet our client’s needs, but the underlying structure ultimately stayed the same.

We had a sales and marketing function, a consulting team, some finance/ops people and a leadership group. How we did business was always forward-thinking, but fundamentally we ran a fairly standard operating model.

In the past year, part of my work has been to make the company more purposeful and explicitly values-lead. Our purpose is ‘developing purposeful organisations’ and two of our core values are fulfilment and autonomy.

To put those at the heart of how we operate, we knew we had to look at how we structured job roles and the organisational design of the business.

We’ve also been getting increasingly tired of the boom/bust consulting cycle, and thinking that given we’re aware of the increasing complexity and emergence in the world, we ought to find a better way of operating in it.

Mapping the ideas in the company

With the value of fulfilment front of mind, and initiated by Charlie, we went through everyone’s job roles and had a very honest conversation based on two simple questions:

  • What do you love about your job?
  • What do you hate about your job?

We got them to strip anything they hated out of their work, so their roles were pared down only to what they found to be fulfilling.

At the same time, we uncovered and mapped the real initiatives at play in the company: not the business functions and teams, but the projects or ideas that were brought into life through someone stepping up.

We mapped these as they fitted into the company’s ultimate purpose, the initiative brought by the founder, Tom.

From here we have given everyone complete autonomy to start their own initiatives, as long as they contribute to the company’s purpose of ‘developing purposeful organisations’. And we can see how it all adds up from the initiative map.

Focusing on purpose to unleash creativity

Initiative mapping is the process of uncovering the different initiatives at play in the business, and how they all contribute towards the organisation’s purpose.

The biggest difference between this and the traditional approaches to organisational structure is that this isn’t about organising people. Instead of creating a series of boxes and job titles that then need to be populated by human beings, it’s just looking at what’s already there. We’re not creating anything new, we’re just looking at and making public everything that’s happening. This way we’re able to work with informal power structures rather than making everything neat and tidy to make a ‘functional machine’.

The initiative map we’re using is a set of concentric circles that all have a purpose and a name attached. Each circle represents an initiative, started by a named individual in the company because they have a need they want to meet, and are doing so by bringing an idea to life in the company.

Each initiative sits within another initiative, ultimately contributing to the source initiative that grounds the whole initiative.

Each initiative is a space where the source of it has total authority and autonomy for how to lead, change or wind it down – as long as it doesn’t transgress the boundaries of the initiative it serves. To reduce the chances of that happening each initiative goes through a briefing process where the owner checks the purpose and scope of the initiative against the needs of the person who’s initiative they’re working into.

And if it isn’t, they have the chance to change it, or we give them total autonomy and support to take that project or idea somewhere else – inside or outside of the company.

This way, it keeps the whole organisation focused on the core purpose, without squashing people’s creative energy.

What we end up with is an emerging map of the energy and authority in the company, that is totally dynamic and is always making sure everything we do is in line with the purpose and values of the company.

And on the ground, we have a team of people only doing things that they’re really passionate about, and have taken full responsibility for.

What makes this different

This approach differs from most standard models for lots of reasons. Here are just a few.

Initiatives have power, not people. Instead of giving individuals power for functions within the business, anyone can take the initiative at any time and have full authority for their initiative. But only for their initiative – for the need or purpose they bring.

This is a map of the energy people are bringing, not a mechanistic design for the company. This puts aside any sense of what I as the MD, or Tom as the founder, thinks should be done in the company, and just allows for the right people to do what matters, when they feel it matters, always in service of purpose.

While standard models and org charts are designed and fixed, this map is totally dynamic and responsive. It might change on a weekly basis. Initiatives naturally come to life, and run out of energy. New ones are started all the time, to respond to situational needs.

So, in closing, it’s important to be explicit that this is a work in progress. Every day we are noticing new things, and reshaping our understanding of how initiatives work together. But, because this is about simply uncovering and working with ‘what is’ – that’s OK. We don’t have to hold on to a fixed idea of how things should be.

That’s not to say it’s easy to let go of the mindset of design and control – although I’m one of the strongest proponents of working with emergence, especially when things get tough, I’m still pulled back towards wanting to impose a structure on the company. But if I did, that would just be me imposing my anxiety or stress onto a group of people, expecting everything to then sort itself out. And, as anyone who’s worked with people before, they aren’t robots and there’s no point treating them that way.

I’m really interested to hear anyone’s feedback or similar experiences – what do you think?

This post was filed under Collaboration, Leadership, Working culture Comments are currently closed.


  1. I find what you’re doing both interesting and immensely exciting. I am constantly looking for articles, blog posts, studies, etc. that concentrate on what is being referred to lately as “The Future of Work”. Unfortunately, most of what I find concentrates on tools, apps, platforms, and such. My interest is more in the cultural and organizational changes that I believe are – and should be – taking place. You are an exemplar in that respect as far as I can tell from this piece. Kudos . . . and more power (or the equitable distribution thereof) to you.

    Posted 3rd November 2014 at 3:49 am | Permalink
  2. Ross

    Really really fascinating.

    The cynic in me wonders how natural human factors (greed, apathy, ego) could easily destabilise a structure without traditional foundations, but then I remember the initial grounding in purpose which I guess surpasses any assumed traditional strength.

    My lasting question is how does this work for large organisations where scale and structure is a requirement. Surely everyone in a company cannot be there for a grander sense of purpose? For some will work not always be just that?

    Anyway, really fascinating. I will continue to admire the intelligence and integrity I know you’ve put into this.

    Posted 3rd November 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Rob Richards

    It’s hard to read the words on the map to tell how you broke things down, but I assume each circle is an initiative?

    What if someone hates a critical task, like a service the organization is contracted to provide?

    Posted 11th November 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  4. Meg

    This is absolutely fascinating, and wonderful to see. Only one thought occurs to me (based on my most recent job): what happens when nobody wants to own an essential task?
    The example I’m thinking of was the managing of an online shop based in a physical sports store. My role managing the online store involved packaging the orders for shipment every day, which I felt to be a total waste of my time and a big stress factor. Of course, no one else was there that could adopt this task, so it remained mine.
    I am wondering whether this model is really possible in EVERY business situation. (I would like it to be!)

    Posted 16th November 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink
  5. Hi Max

    I find this article fascinating. I think one of the main challenges for human beings in business is to let go of control and still trust that the business will be focused enough to be financially successful. In my experience, so many entrepreneurial organisations that start from a place of purpose and passion lose this as they get bigger and assume that they need corporate structures to survive. Max – I work with Natasha Stallard and as you know from her, we are passionate about leadership and people being able to flourish in business. I’d love to continue this conversation with you if you are up for it! Best. Lisa

    Posted 17th November 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  6. The process sounds interesting and engaging. We used to refer to this as “organising around the value-adding stream” which it seems you are doing
    The value adding stream is all that flow
    of work which serves the customer by adding value (in whatever business you are).
    Of course that means you need to be clear about your purpose as that identifies the “ocean” to which your stream is flowing. When these macro-elements are clear it is possible for people to know how their intiatives will fit. (if they don’t fit then you don’t have a job)
    In regard to jobs folk don’t like, either emply someone to do them or learn to like them. If they are adding value, even simple jobs, like packing and despatch, take on new significance. But then, you might transfer the benefit of that to an assistant.
    In some cases, this way of organising has resulted in removal layers of management and supervision and put people in charge of their work.

    Posted 26th November 2014 at 6:15 pm | Permalink