My current work lives here: Oddball Empire - Rock on.
by Ali Anani and Bas de Baar
In this posting we will introduce a view on organizational structures using The Fish Pond. It provides an alternative perspective in answering the question whether we should have flat organizations, pyramidal organizations or something in between. We will use the process of pond stratification as illustration.
Photography by Cubbie n Vegas.
Stratification of fish ponds (click here for illustration) means having different layers or levels of water type (level of oxygen, density, e.g.). These levels are not fixed as the environment of the fish pond changes during daytime and seasons. Depending on the circumstances this layering will change. The environmental conditions demand differences in layering to create a stable eco-system in the pond. In other words, the stratification serves a purpose. However, if certain circumstances take too long, negative consequences can occur. Also tinkering with the ecosystem to eliminate some layering can have negative consequences.
The management lesson provided: there is no ideal fixed hierarchy or organization structure, only one that should be adaptive to environment.
Unlike sea water, fish ponds do not allow for the free flow of water resulting in the stratification of their water. During summer, the heat and relatively calm weather causes pond water to stratify into layers. There is a less dense, warm, upper layer that is exposed to the sun and atmospheric oxygen, a very thin layer where temperature and density changes rapidly, and a cold, denser, lower layer that receives little sunlight and does not mix with the upper layers. Because it does not mix, the bottom layer has no incoming oxygen to replace what is used by bacteria that are decomposing dead animals and plants on the bottom of the pond. This process is called stratification.
As the summer progresses, the lower layer usually loses its oxygen. If a storm carrying cold rains causes the pond to turn mix suddenly, the de-oxygenated water in the lower layer can reduce the oxygen level of the pond enough to cause a fish kill. This stratification is particularly severe in ponds with dense growths of blue-green or “scum” algae on the surface. The colder water may become oxygen- deficient due to interaction with certain elements in the pond bottom and lack of
photosynthesis by phytoplankton at greater depths.
“Pond stratification with turnovers can become a problem in ponds because the deep bottom water has no to low oxygen levels. When the barrier breaks, the oxygen-rich surface water mixes with the oxygen-poor or even oxygen-deficient bottom water. This can result in severe oxygen depletion with a fish kill. Pond turnovers happen quickly, and you should be prepared to handle a low oxygen situation.” (source)
Too much layering in a small work pond will deny the lowest layer with oxygen.
There are two complementary problems addressed in this case: the lack of oxygen, and the sudden addition of oxygen.
Aeration of fish ponds to supply the lower layer with oxygen to support life, for example by pumping, is essential; otherwise a self-kill phenomenon will be experienced. The worms and bacteria, which help keep a pond clean cannot live and the pond’s nutrients are then recycled from the sediment. This forms a layer of dirt at the bottom which serves as a fertilizer for weed and excessive algae growth. It could also cause large fish kills (source). In this case the lesson is clear: lower level employees need aeration to survive in a work pond much more than they need it in a copious working space. Unless this condition is fulfilled, mass destruction to the organization where they work might happen. By making the analogy to the Filter and Drainage story, too much layering (or shielding the team of from outside influences) disturbs the needed flow of “fresh” trust entering, and the building up of toxins.
Adding oxygen might be beneficial as indicated. But this should only be done if the mixing will not make oxygen deficiency all through the pond. Normally, the bottom layer is prone to oxygen deficiency. Flattening this deficiency by mixing all layers will be counter productive if deficiency of oxygen will make the new emerging homogeneous layer oxygen-deficient. This will lead to mass kill.
This means that we may have multi levels of organizational structures and each level must have assignments in parallel to the prevailing work conditions and their possible changes. The integration of these levels and the flow of information must be initiated to satisfy the prevailing work conditions. The issue is we may tolerate few layers to distribute our resources even though one layer will be deficient. Trying to distribute the resources equally will make the whole organization deficient leading to its killing.
In conclusion, sometimes layering is needed for protection, making sure that deficiencies or not spread all over the place. Sometimes layering is just adding handicaps, like limiting the flow of information and trust.
Ali Anani got his PhD in chemistry in the UK (1972). As of 1981 Dr. Anani got interested in applying scientific approaches to economic and social issues.
Bas de Baar works as a Project Manager for over a decade. Since 2001, he has been the editor of SoftwareProjects.org, a popular website dedicated to Software Project Management.