The strength of the weak links

I spent a lot of Sunday wandering around concepts of 'responsibility' v 'accountability' – trying to answer questions like 'Are the words used synonymously?' 'What does each mean?' 'Does it matter?' etc.

One blogger, a Dutchman called Jurgen Appelo led me, via his assessment of the difference, led me to another of his posts this one on leaders v. rulers. In this he comments that:

"In his presentation Step Back from Chaos Jonathan Whitty (University of Queensland, Australia) shows that managers are often not the hubs in a social network. It's the informal leaders in a network through which most of the communication flows. It's the managers' job to make sure that leadership is cultivated, and that the emerging leaders are following the rules".

I was following the responsibility v accountability path because I was specifically interested in 'cultural accountability' which turns out to be a whole area of academic endeavor. But, ever curious, I clicked on Jurgen's link and tuned into the Whitty presentation. I was glad I did. It was totally fascinating stuff. He has a wonderful teaching style – completely non-jargon, lively, graphic, and engrossing in the way he explains the myth of small world concepts.

He invites us to "consider a world with no project managers – where projects are self-managing". He says that it is "simply not true" that every orchestra needs a conductor. This is particularly pertinent for me at this point as I have just recommended to a client that they get a project manager. But maybe that isn't necessary. However, I'll have to listen to the lecture a couple more time and then do some more research before I can confidently assert that I was wrong in suggesting a project manager.

He talks about self organizing and synchronicity where patterns of behaviors will emerge. But he urges us not to equate complexity with randomness. "A social system has a hidden blueprint – a structure beneath it which drives its behavior that adhere to rigid laws".

Bits of the presentation that stick out for me relate to 'hubs' – the people who are at the epicenter of a network. Whitty makes the point that "If you remove hubs then the networks will fall apart. Networks dominate our society. Society has its hubs and there are people who are far more connected than the rest of us. They allow people and information to travel far and fast. Once a virus penetrates a hub it can spread unstoppably through the network. We could apply vaccines to the hubs rather than randomly." He talks about "preferential attachment" and notes that "as a group we follow patterns. Popularity is attractive. Those that get connected to … are more likely to be connected to …" As a throwaway he suggests we look at Sociopatterns (which I duly did), and urges us not to underestimate the strength of the weak links. His arguments are definitely thought provoking and offer a new line of investigation for my organization design work.