In 1905, Albert Einstein introduced the world to e=mc2.
It was a watershed moment. This devastatingly simple equation unlocked answers to the universe’s complexities, allowing us to do incredible things. n(n-1) is, similarly, simple and yet powerful: It is the key to quickly unlocking the answers to our largest and most complex challenges within all industries—creative, business, public, or non-profit.
It’s a Tuesday morning. You walk into your office and find a lion sitting on your desk. Terrifying, yes, but you can, in the blink of aneye, absorb the situation, think of your options, decide on one, and act (presumably by running in the opposite direction).
Organizations don’t work nearly as fast; they are not just one person nor are their challenges as obvious a threat as a lion inthe office. Rather, their most complex challenges—doubling growth, reforming healthcare, or capitalizing on a movie franchise—are much less straightforward and much more multi-faceted.
Solving complex challenges requires the involvement of many people who are distributed within and around an organization.It takes many people to detect, understand and absorb all the dimensions of a challenge, think of options, and decide on thebest solution. And acting or executing—hardest and most elusive of all—requires the mobilization of many doers and manyleaders.
How many people? As a rule of thumb, you need the full breadth of people who collectively understand all of the facets of thechallenge and who will be part of implementing the solution. Depending on the challenge, that number can include variousfunctions, geographies, and levels of hierarchy, as well as external perspectives from customers, partners, experts, andothers. The more complex the challenge, the more people you will need.
Let’s call that number of people n and assume it’ll be somewhere between 20 and 50.Now, how do you bring the full power of n to bear on your challenge? Put them all around a table and have them talk it out?
You already know that doesn’t work.
How about interviewing everyone? Isn’t that what task forces or consultants do? Yes, it’s called the hub-and-spoke model:Bring in the experts, give them the starring role, have them interview people, and produce a solution. This approach cangenerate a lot of input, but all that information gets funneled and filtered through a tiny number of interviewers, who then usethe information to tailor a pre-set solution on behalf of everyone else.
And that’s okay if your challenge is linear – that is, all the variables operate in a predictable manner—or has been solvedmany times before, like implementing accounting software or a new Order Management System. But if your challenge is non-linear and novel, then there is no pre-set solution. Task forces and consultants will struggle for months to generate freshanswers.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the hub-and-spoke model is lack of ownership. Ownership is lodged in the center with the“experts” who built and gradually came to believe in the solution, not with the organization’s doers and leaders who will dragtheir feet to execute on the strategy—if they even do so at all. That’s why even really good strategies, written by the bestminds in the world, tend to gather dust on the shelf.
The only way to unlock the full power of n people is to use a many-to-many structure that connects each person effectivelyand fully with every single other person in the group. Each person has their own individual pieces of the puzzle, but thosepieces need to be assembled by them, not for them.
Here’s what a many-to-many structure looks like:
At each connection, major leaps can happen: Differentiated insights. Hidden opportunities. Breakthrough tactics. Winning strategies. But only if each of the n people (the nodes in the picture above) is connected to each of the n-1 other people.
n(n-1) is the formula that defines the number of two-way connections in a many-to-many, n-to-n, structure. If you’veconvened 31 people, you need to optimize for 930 two-way connections. 37 people? 1,332 connections. And so on.
Effectively managing all these connections requires deliberate engineering and careful orchestration: first, ensuring theconnections are filled with robust, back-and-forth dialogue; second, monitoring and capturing what happens at eachconnection; third, activating each connection over and over again, so that everyone can benefit from the insights that arepopping up everywhere.
When you manage n(n-1) effectively, you can solve complex challenges and mobilize support on a rapidly acceleratedtimeline—in a matter of days, not months.
Creativity typically takes time, as it requires diverse perspectives to organically intersect and interact. But n(n-1) allows youto engineer creativity, through careful orchestration of each connection and interaction.
Mobilization also takes awhile. Securing buy-in from a critical mass is how execution at scale happens, but it usually takesmonths to achieve that. With n(n-1), mobilization is naturally engineered, because each of the n people—the critical mass—feels ownership over the solution which they have helped create.
While complexity has always been an important challenge for organizations, today it is the defining challenge of ourinterconnected world. “The definition of genius,” Einstein once said, “is taking the complex and making it simple.”
n(n-1) is a simple, breakthrough formula for mastering complexity at rapid speed.
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