We excel at cooperating at scale

Human beings love to form organisations. It’s highly likely that you’re a member of several organisations yourself. There will be your family, which you were born into, so didn’t really have much of a choice about that one. Maybe you created a family of your own. There’s that youth club that you volunteer for every second Thursday. There’s that Pilates class you go to on Saturday mornings. One of the most important organisations in our lives is often the business that we work for. Or, if we are lucky enough, the business that we own or created ourselves. Organisations are everywhere, in all parts of our lives, at all levels of society. They stretch all the way up to global entities like the United Nations or NATO or World Economic Forum, for example. This urge to organise is part and parcel of being a human being. Getting into groups is what people do.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari observes:

Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers.

Simply put, people excel at cooperating at scale.

What’s the point?

Thinking about businesses, it’s easy to lose sight of the point of having an organisation in the first place. Why does this business exist? What is the purpose of the organisation? In almost every instance, an organisation exists to serve people’s needs.

Let’s think about a simple example like a mediaeval cobbler. Let’s say this is an organisation of two unrelated cobblers who go into business together to make shoes. So, we have the needs of the people involved in the business, namely the cobblers themselves to start with. The organisation serves the needs of the people inside the business: they need to make money, to have fulfilling work, to feel they have a purpose, to spend time with like-minded people, perhaps. But the organisation is also there to serve the needs of the people who need shoes. If the cobblers don’t serve those needs, they don’t provide shoes for people, then their organisation will cease to exist.

Mutual benefit

So in this basic example, we have an organisation formed to serve the needs of the people inside it and the needs of the people that the organisation serves. In this way, there is a kind of mutual benefit — a balance between serving the needs of the people inside the organisation and serving the needs of the people outside the organisation. The organisation will care about other peoples needs too, such as suppliers and partners. The cobblers will care about the needs of the people who provide their leather, sharpen their tools, run the cobblers’ guild, and so on.

In the day-to-day running of many businesses, it’s typical to focus on their own commercial objectives. There’s a risk we lose sight of the fact that serving needs is the purpose of the organisation. This is what the organisation is for.

This is true of almost every organisation I can think of. Things get muddy when thinking about certain governments. Whose needs do they serve? Whose needs should they serve? Maybe it’s naive to think that a government should serve the needs of the people. If you look at many governments, it’s not often obvious that they’re trying to serve the needs of the people. It may even look like they’re trying to serve their needs at the expense of the people.

What if…

How might things look if all organisations served the needs of the people in this balanced way? I believe we’d have a much fairer society and a much fairer economy. I believe we’d have less selfish, monopolistic practices, less division and greater equality. This isn’t some clarion call for communism, it’s simply a recognition that if we treat each other fairly, we’ll have better lives. If we recognise that our business isn’t just for us, that other people are absolutely critical to its future existence, then humanity might be more, well, humane.

Being systematically humane

It’s not easy to run your organisation based on principles of “fairness”, mutual benefit and shared priorities. It can be made a lot easier if you have a system, though.

Have a look at the N2D Method. It’s a set of simple tools that show you how serving people’s needs helps your business. It uses algorithms to reduce subjectivity and streamline the process. Cathy O’Neil rightly warns that algorithms are opinions embedded in code. The opinion embedded at the heart of the N2D Method algorithms is that “organisations exist to serve people’s needs”.

While humans excel at cooperating at scale, it doesn’t hurt to make the process easier.