Choosing a path – topdown vs network

pathWhich path to follow?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post called The Network of Cities and Organisations about Dave Troy’s Peoplemaps initiative. After having spoken about how cities can be viewed as networks and how we can get new insights using this perspective, Troy finishes his TED Talk with these words: “We have the ability to reshape our cities in a new way: Let’s do it.”

My message was the network perspective also provides new insights into how organisations work, and that we should do the same with our organisations. But how do we reshape our organisations? Is there anything we can learn from urban planners who have been analysing cities as networks?

Assistant Professor Zachary Neal of Psychology at Michigan State University (@zpneal) has written extensively about cities as networks and how we can reshape these. When Neal applies the network lense to cities, each element (or node) in the network is a destination, eg. a library, and streets/paths connect these.

 In his book The Connected City[1] Neal refers to three guidelines for optimum city design:

  1. Build connections between nodes that are different but complementary (e.g. neighbourhood to shopping mall is better than shopping mall to shopping mall)
  2. Consider the scale of the network as we don’t want to walk too far (don’t make us drive everywhere)
  3. Streets/sidewalks are expensive to build and maintain. Only construct when they are truly useful (vs. decorative).

Neal then makes this important point:

 “ …cities should be designed in the specific order that makes them liveable: first define the location of the green spaces and pedestrian areas, then design the network of pedestrian paths, and finally arrange the buildings and streets. This has been the process for many older cities, but newer cities are often built in the opposite order, leading to networks that are good for cars, but bad for people.”

Many organisations seem to be designed just like ‘newer cities’. First the business units and reporting lines (‘buildings and streets’) are determined. Then dotted reporting lines (‘pedestrian paths’) are created to increase coordination, and finally  – maybe – collaborative tools/cultures are considered (‘green spaces and pedestrian areas’).  

This way of designing organisations may have been useful in the past but it is not anymore. Decisions need to be made faster than what can be accomplished when the organisation is designed from a hierarchical top down perspective.  It is on this new reality that The Responsive Organisation initiative was formed. Their manifesto[2] outlines the transition that must happen from the old to the new ‘responsive’ organisations:



  • Efficiencies
  • Responsiveness
  • Hierarchies
  • Networks
  • Controlling
  • Empowering
  • Extrinsic Rewards
  • Intrinsic Motivation
  • Office and Office Hours
  • Anywhere and Anytime
  • Customers and Partners
  • Community

When we empower people to determine with whom, when and where collaboration has to happen, things happen a lot faster. This brings me back to the city-as-a-network analogy and another quote from Neal:

“Frequently in parks, or on college campuses, although there are many sidewalks, there will be a few well-worn paths through the grass. These informal paths show where people really want to go, and where the paths should have been located in the first place.”

To be responsive we must ensure that a collaborative culture supported by collaborative tools is at the centre. The way the organisation is structured will always be playing catch-up to present day needs. People know how to get things done fast. Don’t let hierarchies get in the way.

(Also read my post on Network Leadership inspired by the efficiencies of roundabouts to get traffic moving)

[1] Neal, Z. “The connected city.” How Networks are Shaping the Modern Metropolis. London and New York: Routledge (2012).