The Big Companies Of The Future Will All Be Shape-Shifters

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Photo: LawPrieR via Flickr

It is in the classic words of Gloria Gaynor’s song, “I will survive”, corporations will “learn how to get along…”A great deal of my community has given up on large organisations, stating that the “true” innovation is now happening at start-ups. What that story misses is that many of the “free agents” we see around us as consultants, and so on are actually part of a larger enterprise, albeit in a loose relationship. Larger organisations will survive if only because of the human need to be apart of something larger and the efficiencies of those ecosystems.

One notable thought leader who has written a business book talking to the “new” corporate structure for the current era is Mike Malone. Some might remember that he also wrote the book on “virtual corporations” 25 years ago. This new book is called The Future Arrived Yesterday, talking about the rise of the Protean Corporation. The thesis is that companies will become shape-shifters, constantly restructuring themselves to adapt to changing circumstances and new opportunities. Examples include WikiPedia, HuffPo, Approtech, Twitter, Google and the US Army.  

These entities are embodying virtual, horizontal, innovative and adaptive forms of work and focused less on a particular spot or position and more about being structurally/culturally capable of innovation.

What I loved and you’ll know why in a second is that he describes these kinds of new companies as an “amorphous, ever-changing cloud around a solid core — where have we see that before?” he writes. The model in the natural world is the atom.

Now for those of you that have been watching some of my talks and posts, will recognise the parallel thinking. I have been writing about “permeable corporations” as a new model and I’ve been using the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle over the last few months — first for my TED talk in India and later in my work of explaining the Air Sandwich concept in The New How — to global leaders as a way of characterising the need to change our approach. An early video of this concept here:


The Heisenberg concept points out that you can either study an atom in position OR study it’s velocity. But you can’t do both. I find most companies have perfected “position” but have failed to reimagine their culture and work processes when they need to be nimble, and innovative. Most organisations need to figure out how to have and solve for momentum and velocity AND maintain the core vision for its business. For the obvious reasons that competitiveness in this era will require an adaptability and agility our past hasn’t required.

3 Strategies found in Malone’s work:

  1. Be structurally consistent. Every company today is to some degree adaptive. The new competitive differentiator according to Malone is which ones are structurally consistent to enable this kind of adaptiveness routinely. [In the New How, I assume that traditional hierarchy can stay in place for the purpose of maintaining order and having the best disciplines right the best people, etc but then to do work through initiatives using the QUEST methodology that will allow you to come together, define the problem to solve, envision options, picking the best, engaging everyone in the WHY of the solution and then letting them do their best work because of it. I assume we think together, do separately so we get both the order and chaos part of what Malone is talking to…]
  2. Find a way to hear the truth about your business by “your family”. He points out that media (bloggers, websites, mainstream press) are like family members in that they are sometimes antagonistic, sceptical, probing, and judgmental but they often provide us a clear picture of where we are today so we ignore them or squash them at our peril. (great story of apple doing so on pg 207)
  3. Talent strategy. “Success in business, especially in tech, has always gone to the company that can attract the small number of innovators and leaders. This won’t change,” he says. The company that can sign up the best competence aggregators and creative talent and hold onto them for the longest time will almost always win the battle. [I recently wrote an article about Google being a notable company that hires talented, educated, creative people and then treats them like talented, educated, creative people — not morons. Look for companies that do that and I believe we’ll have outperforming companies.]

Nilofer Merchant is CEO and Chief Strategist of Rubicon Consulting. She’s also the author of “The New How.” She has honed her unique, collaborative approach to solving tough problems while working with and for companies like Adobe, Apple, Nokia, HP and others. This post was originally published on her blog, and it is re-published here with permission.

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