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The octopus in your organization chart

Dr Duncan Forgan
Dr Duncan Forgan Tech Lead



In a previous life, I was deeply involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). I published academic articles on the subject, and even wrote a book on the matter – which is still available in all good book stores.

SETI’s ultimate goal is an attempt to generalize the human condition at cosmic scales, to learn more about humanity by exploring the Universe, and trying to map out the dizzying parameter space in which “intelligence” might exist.

Indeed, we don’t have to look up to already see that intelligence is not an exclusively human property, and that the human brain is not the only substrate on which to run advanced “software”.

Early research in animal intelligence focused on dolphins, chimpanzees and bonobos, because of their unique social structures and their linguistic capabilities. In some cases, the line between researcher and test subject became particularly blurred.

In more recent times, attention has also been paid to octopus intelligence. On multiple occasions, octopuses in captivity have shown remarkable adaptability and problem-solving skills.

Octopuses are also interesting as they are an example of intelligence outside of the mammal lineage. They are uniquely weird because what we might define as their “brain” is actually a multi-node network, with a central node surrounding its esophagus and smaller sub-nodes in each of the octopus’s eight tentacles. This makes the tentacles effectively autonomous, able to respond independently of the central brain even when they are amputated!

I am arriving at the point of all this, I promise, but let’s take an extra moment to consider how brains evolved. There is a well-defined progression in sensory/nervous systems over geological time, beginning with highly distributed networks across the entire organism, effectively mixing brain and nervous system function. Under evolutionary pressure, the need for rapid communication across the sensory function forced what we would consider as “brain functions” into a more condensed region, resulting in a single organ.

But not for the octopus, it seems that rather than a slow collection of neurons into a single brain, the octopus was under pressure to form a complex sensory system quickly – at least in evolutionary terms. The need for tentacles to be able to operate autonomously seems to have dominated the benefits of rapid internal communication that mammals enjoy from a single brain. The octopus’s lack of proprioception (the body’s ability to sense movement or location) may also have contributed to this.

And now, I am arriving at the point, by making an analogy with organizations.

Organizations begin with a relatively small number of people, with a flat hierarchy, with each “brain” in the organization acting a bit like the distributed network we see in early multicellular life.

Over time, organizations grow and evolve. The need for effective division of labour and a coherent overall strategy encourages the growth of hierarchies, and the concentration of decision making into the hands of a smaller number of people. Just as brains evolve from an evolutionary drive for effective decision making, so does the organisation chart.

At Dayshape, we’ve been cogitating on Paul Adam’s Turing Fest talk on speed and agility in tech companies. One of the key ideas in that presentation was the idea of small, autonomous product teams, able to pursue their objectives without unnecessary interference from the top. Sounds a lot like an octopus tentacle, doesn’t it?

But herein lies an interesting problem: what happens when an octopus needs its tentacles to cooperate on a given problem?  

A good example is crawling. Octopuses can crawl along the ocean floor at remarkable speed, and can do so without any obvious rhythm or order in their locomotion. This is achieved by adroit communication between the octopus’s central controllers in its principal brain, and the autonomous arm-brains performing the crawling motion. In other words, highly efficient two-way communication between autonomous units and a central management system.

Organizations have an analogous need. How do product teams align to advance the strategic aims of their parent organisation? In the same vein as the crawling octopus, efficient two-way communication is absolutely essential across the entire organisation chart.  

At Dayshape, we rely on our culture and values, especially Over-Communication, Unity, and Big Picture to help us achieve this, as well as our investment in growing strong, effective, autonomous team leaders.

I’ve had a pretty unusual career by most standards (not everyone gets to sit on the International Academy of Astronautics SETI Permanent Committee) but it never fails to amaze me when knowledge from my previous career somehow becomes relevant today.  

The next time you look at your company’s organisation chart, ask yourself: what kind of animal is it?

If you like the sound of how we operate at Dayshape, we’d like to hear from you. Check out our vacancies and join our team at the fastest growing tech company in Scotland.

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