Last week on the Fast Company site, a piece titled 'How Short-Lived, Slow-Moving Companies Can Become More Like Fast, Creative Cities' , a review of some of the research of physicist Geoffrey West on the growth and development of cities, caught my attention. It was a familiar read since I had previously blogged about West and his research in December 2010 in a post called 'Physics, Cities, and Corporations'.
By way of review, West describes a theory, based on extensive research of world cities and over 23,000 companies, that cities tend to follow a pattern found in other complex ecosystems; most often, they grow in stability, success, and creativity as they increase in size and grow more diverse. With rare exceptions, cities tend not to disappear. In contrast companies tend to look more like mammals, getting slower as they increase in size and bureaucracy, and then growing old and fading away entirely.
Why did I want to essentially re-post on the same topic once more? Well, the original piece ran a few days before Christmas 2010, and somehow I get the feeling that physics and demographics were not really all that compelling for most readers who might have had visions of sugarplums and all that going on. And second, last month a talk given by Professor West about his theories and presented at the TedGlobal2011 event was posted on the Ted site. A copy of the 17-minute talk is embedded below, (email and RSS subscribers will need to click through to see the video).
While West's theories are highly provocative, they don't really start to offer organizations, particularly large ones (or ones that aspire to grow large), ideas on how to prevent that inevitable slide into the kind of growth stagnation and slow decline of vibrancy, creativity, and energy that seem to ensnare so many large and mature organizations. Why does it have to be that with increased size, organizations seem to be destined to slower rates of growth, and eventual disruption at the hands of smaller, faster, more agile competitors? While cities, on the other hand, seem to thrive with growth, and when you dig into West's data, see increases in efficiency in many measures - energy use, infrastructure requirements, creativity, etc.
Obviously this topic is interesting to me, since I've posted on it twice, (and watched the TED video a couple of times), so hopefully this will resonate with some of you that might be inside organizations that seemed to have lost a step as they have grown larger.
What are some of the ways that you can help instill some of that energy and agility that most of your smaller competitors are using against you? What, if anything can you take from the growth of urban areas and city ecosystems that might apply?