Digital & Social Media

Strategically Integrating One Fractal at a Time


Convergence among the various disciplines we refer to as communications and marketing has brought unprecedented complexity to management. Our instinct is often to reach for org charts and best practices in hopes of finding a quick solution.

Usually, that doesn’t work—and that’s not just because the nature of the problem defies a one-size-fits-all remedy. The very idea of focusing on org charts and reporting lines doesn’t remotely start to solve the difficulty because that response, in fact, is part of the problem.

Rooted in the command-control structures of the military, org charts are visual representations of silos. Reporting lines and work-flow diagrams illustrate attempts to force stability and impose predictable outcomes on what feels like (and in fact is) a highly unstable, disruptive environment.

The dynamics of today’s world are forcing the collapse of silos and the breakdown of command-control systems. The more we try to impose order on complexity, the more disorder we seem to create. Yet, complexity science tells us that within apparent chaos lies a pattern of elegant simplicity and inherent order shaped by a few straightforward rules. How can we discern that pattern in the workplace and let it guide our efforts? That is our challenge.

It’s hard to overstate how deeply grounded we are in thinking and working in silos, and how difficult it is to think and act outside them. Virtually all of our training and reward and recognition systems emphasize narrowly focused specialty skills, vertical problem-solving, project management in piece-parts, and the primacy of our own discipline’s language, approaches, tools and methods over those of others.

We need counter-balancing skills from whole-systems thinking and pattern recognition, empathy and openness for our organizational structures and systems to become more responsive and adaptive. But there’s even more to it than that.

We should see businesses for the complex interconnected systems they are, with every business unit, department or group a part—and reflection—of the whole. The dynamics of these smaller entities, complexity science suggests, exhibit the characteristics of fractals, geometric shapes formed from repetitive patterns occurring throughout nature that manifest at multiple levels of scale. In fractals, the patterns of a macro system or object are replicated in micro versions observable at magnifications of more than a trillion. Each part is a miniature version of the whole.

The study of fractals as a metaphor for organizational dynamics suggests that issues experienced in one department embody deeply patterned behaviors recurring across the larger organization, which is one reason why individual departmental reinvention can sometimes prove difficult.

Yet, the converse is also true. “If elements are successfully changed in the micro-version of a complex system, the change can be replicated and scaled to attain the same impact across the larger business system,” says Jean Egmon, a management consultant and professor at the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who applies the concepts of fractal and complex adaptive systems in her research.

Instead of trying to design change-related project in silos, we can design them as fractals, deliberately embodying the complexity and challenges of the larger organization to create a model that can be learned from, adapted and scaled naturally across the system. Pilot programs that don’t take into account these complexities are unlikely to thrive, let alone scale. Fractal projects, Egmon also points out, have different dynamics, embracing the patterns of innovation diffusion rather than those of top-down change management initiatives.

What all this suggests is that instead of feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of trying to manage convergence, we can take a page from the study of complex adaptive systems to understand and apply the few simple rules – the elegant simplicity – behind the apparent chaos.