But when digital disruption comes knocking, this rigid specialisation can also be their downfall.
My friend Matt Locke suggests companies have a dominant tempo. Fashion brands work around seasons, publishers on editions, and tech companies in sprints.
If you come from a different discipline, like digital design, there’s a good chance you will clash with the dominant tempo, and get rejected.
As a fan of the concept of “shearing layers” popularised by Stewart Brand, the idea of tempo clashes rings true to me.
I recently came across the concept of Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners (PST) which is derived from Robert X Cringely’s “Accidental Empires”. This builds on the shearing layer model.
PST holds the idea that there are essentially three types of behaviours and cultures in the business landscape.
Pioneers are your typical early stage startup types; designers and technologists who like charting new territory, taking risks, and exploring novel approaches.
They are comfortable with a high degree of uncertainty and their experiments often fail.
Rather than feeling dejected, pioneers see it as a huge learning opportunity. They are early adopters and bedroom hackers, always playing at the edge of the adjacent possible.
Pioneers are great at innovating new products, getting them to beta, and figuring out product-market fit.
Their mantra of “move fast and break things” doesn’t always work at scale.
It’s common for pioneers to hop between teams and startups, always looking to be at the bleeding edge where their skills are most valued.
Once the territories have been charted, the settlers come into their own.
Settlers see opportunity opening up in front of them, and know how to take advantage of it.
In the new world they were the early homesteaders, cattle barons and gold miners, turning the natural resources discovered by the pioneers into cold, hard cash.
Later settlers opened saloons and stores, supporting the early pioneers. After all, it’s often better to sell shovels in the midst of a gold-rush.
In today’s world, the settlers are the entrepreneurs, startup founders, growth hackers and social media marketing execs.
They excel at spotting new opportunities, nurturing them, and getting them to scale.
Most new companies are started by pioneers, but it’s the settlers who make the ventures successful.
Maintaining scale is difficult. This is where the town planners step in.
These city elders are the department leaders and operations teams; the design researchers, dev-ops specialists and QA teams.
They bring a level of rigour and practice to what was once the Wild West, providing structure, dealing with governance, and supporting the entire ecosystem.
Town planners can turn a fast growing company into an efficient and well-oiled machine.
Most of the traditional companies I work with have been around for a long time.
They’ve been through their pioneering stage many years back, and are now firmly focussed on town planning.
They’re optimised to do one or two things very well, be that sourcing new fashions, publishing new authors, or delivering kick-arse code, and they excel at doing this.
The pace of change
The business landscape is changing much faster than companies realise.
Technology isn’t just something your CTO can buy in. It comes with a set of cultures, processes and practices that are fundamentally changing the way businesses work.
Technology is also changing consumer expectations in a massive way, and the town planners are struggling to keep up.
Every new change requires a feasibility study, a policy decision and new governance criteria.
All this effort is wasted if there are no pioneers and settlers around to implement these edicts.
Older organisations have the tendency to accrete policy rather than take advantage of opportunity.
The tech companies realised this, which is why they’ve always strived to maintain a healthy balance of pioneers, settlers and town planners.
When the environment starts to change, the pioneers are already there, looking for new opportunities.
When something interesting comes up, the settlers can quickly turn it into a new revenue stream, keeping the system flexible.
The small number of town planners these organisations have are there to support the pioneers and settlers, giving them just enough structure to be efficient, but no more.
For traditional businesses, this means cutting down the number of town planners required, building an amazing team of settlers, and maintaining enough pioneers to manage the change and feed the business with new opportunities.
Essentially it means moving from a command-and-control organisational structure to a networked organisational structure.
Agencies trying to help traditional companies manage digital transformation need to identify the pioneers, make it easier for them to do their work, and build out that capability if required.
They also need to support the settlers, helping them be more effective through coaching, training and the creation of simple tools, processes and design patterns.
Lastly they need to work with the town planners to ensure that they have the right governance, zoning and infrastructure in place.
Digital transformation projects are doomed to fail if they only focus on one of these constituents; like trying to create new pioneers through an innovation hub, or imposing a design language on teams with no thought to how if fits into the existing workflow.
Only by working across all three shearing layers, and with all these constituents, can you truly embrace digital transformation.