Into this environment steps a well-meaning leader who announces, we’re going to begin using Slack – or Asana or or some other platform designed to help the flow of work and communication – and the IC’s heart sinks. The new app or platform might be great, but, the IC thinks, it is one more system to interface with, and I haven’t even come close to understanding the existing Systems, Meetings, Processes, Reporting, Workflow, etc. or how I fit into this puzzle. It’s as if they have been captured by the Borg, aliens in Star Trek who coopt all technologies they encounter and turn individual beings into drones through a process called “assimilation.” “We are BORG (short for cyborg) you will be assimilated”

Complexity and Invisible Workflows – With the digitization and automation of so much work, the actual flow of work is hard for ICs to see or even imagine, these workflows have become hidden from view more and more as we link this system to that system. However, this does not mean the IC is excluded, and an understanding of what, when and where one participates in a Workflow is more important than ever to improve and refine an organization.
Complexity and invisible workflows.

Without Organizational Cognizance, any new System – and I’m not knocking the random examples above – feels like a fancy to-do list, yet another box to check, another Slogin. I share the following formula and accompanying graphic with my clients to illustrate my point about creeping complexity in organizations.

The first time I saw this arrows diagram describing complexity was in 2007 when Gino Wickman drew it on a whiteboard to describe his first “Leadership Ability,” the Ability to Simplify.

complexity drawing for org structures

Of course, my sick statistics mind goes into formula creation mode and I think: N, or the number of “Nodes” (interacting entities), squared minus the number of Nodes equals C, or the level of Complexity. So, for instance, if there are only two Nodes and two directions for interaction (represented by two arrow tips in the illustration above), the level of Complexity is just two (2² – 2 = 2). As you can see from our graphic, adding one Node, for a total of just three, triples the level of Complexity (from two arrow tips to six), and going from four nodes to five, raises the Complexity level from twelve to twenty.

N² – N = C

Research shows that the number of variables humans can mentally handle while trying to solve a problem – whether that’s baking a pie or closing a sale – is three. In their article “How Many Variables Can Humans Process?” published in the journal Psychological Science, Graeme S. Halford and his coauthors found that juggling four elements is very difficult for people, five nearly impossible.

So, yes, adding that new app, System, mandatory Meeting, etc., however benign the intention, is a big deal. Interestingly, the researchers behind the Psychological Science article found that the subjects in their experiments naturally tried to group like variables, to establish connections, and to break complexity down into navigable chunks. Job titles are an easy example of this – tons of complexity gets shoved into one Pandora’s Box, represented as a word or two on an Org Chart… You get the picture and why the old Org Chart, with its Pandora’s boxes, is going the way of the dinosaur. Humans crave understanding. They want to know where they fit and the ways in which their Nodes, however they’re defined for a given challenge or organization, relate. They want Organizational Cognizance.



Not only do ICs want Organizational Cognizance, the conscientious ones are continually striving for it in their heads, attempting to make sense of all the Meetings, Mentors, Systems, Processes, Projects, Teams, etc. with little more to go on than a 2-D Org Chart, a top-down, hierarchical tool that hasn’t changed in thousands of years, (remember the Terracotta Warriors buried with a Chinese emperor circa 210 B.C.). It is closely tied to its military roots, soldiers ordered by “rank and file.” Today’s ICs still hear echoes of the old MO: “Why?! Because I said so! Now, get back in line!”

Are architects still using pencils? Of course not. With the help of Computer-Aided Design, they engage in incredible 3-D modelling and produce designs that would have been impossible thirty years ago. Engineers can now build entire machines with 3-D printers, and medical diagnosis has leaped forward with MRI imaging that can distinguish types of tissue at a fine level and present their complex gradations with dazzlingly clear 3-D visualizations.

Only in business are we still relying on a 2-D, the-world-is-flat analogue tool, the old-fashioned Org Chart, to understand a complex, technologically advanced environment. It’s as if NASA or SpaceX were relying on cave drawings to run their space programs.

The resulting lack of clarity for those conscientious ICs, the stars who organizations should be nurturing, manifests as frustration and, ultimately, disengagement. More than two-thirds of U.S. workers are not actively engaged at work, according to Gallup’s famous engagement survey, and over years of working with organizations of all types and sizes, I have realized that the absence of Organizational Cognizance is often to blame.

Poor engagement, of course, hits the bottom-line in all sorts of ways – performance, retention, sick time…If, for example, your average retention period is 3.2 years, essentially, 30 percent of your ICs will be new every year. How long does it take to reach maximum ROI (return on investment) with these new hires? My clients tell me that before they installed an Organizational Cognizance approach, their people would spend three to four months just getting “up to speed” – understanding what they should be doing, who to turn to with questions, where the nondairy creamer is stored. This is time when they’re not really earning or producing for the firm. In year two they reach 50 percent ROI, and at year three they get to 75 percent. It is only in year four that they can count on 100 percent capacity ROI.

Imagine if you could shorten the hemorrhaging period and get ICs up to speed in two months, to 75 percent effective in twelve months, and to 100 percent by the end of year two. Assuming your retention stays at 3.2 years, (and, by the way, it won’t with Organizational Cognizance – it will improve to four and five years) you will enjoy a permanent 15 percent gain in employee productivity. That’s FIFTEEN PERCENT straight to your EBITDA.

The obvious problem here is that ICs are moving on after year three, you are continually retraining, and the organization never sees a decent ROI. At Layline, a pre-Internet catalog business I started many years ago that became a pretty successful dot-com, during orientation we always had a second-year Coach immediately teach every new crew member how to navigate MOM (our product and order system) and DAD (our searchable tribal knowledge intranet).

When someone asked a question at Layline, we could lovingly say, “Have you checked with MOM or DAD? I think they have the answer.” With this approach and backbone in place, people got up to speed very quickly. This solid frame of self-serve reference helped them understand our Systems, Processes, Workflow, Meetings, etc. – and they learned to find the answers to most questions on their own. If MOM and DAD didn’t have an answer, we discussed what it should be, and with guidance from his or her Coach, the answer-seeker would do the update. Like the Organizational Cognizance Model, which draws heavily from this experience, it was a self-maintaining, self-improving system updated by ICs, the real-world users.

Yes, we are in essence reproducing the MOM / DAD solution, but maybe it is called a LMS, learning management system, to use fancy words.

The key point, as we’ll explore in depth later, is that my clients take the same systematic approach to keeping their Organizational Cognizance Models up-to-date. The people interfacing with the Nodes and Connections data are the ones who update it and improve it. It is a dispersed effort, owned by the ICs who are using it every day.  If you can’t buy this, then you are a dinosaur and should stop reading now, but, wait, dinosaurs don’t read, right?

If you can’t buy this, then you are a dinosaur and should stop reading, now, but, wait, dinosaurs don’t read, right?

Imagine how much time organizations following the Organizational Cognizance Model, with Jobs defined by Positions clearly mapped to all relevant Nodes, can save on training and on-boarding. (Yes, the Organizational Cognizance software can double as your LMS, or Learning Management System, which, in essence, is what it functions as. Whether the training material is embedded in the Skill Node as Rich Text, attachments, or videos, or you use the Skill Node to link to your existing LMS, it will be easy to navigate from one central location, tied to one’s Position, with home plate as the Person – our primary Node.) How much money and effort might be saved if you could cut in half the time it took to get a new IC to the status of Minimum Viable Employee, to 75 percent effective, or to 100 percent ROI? How might organizational performance improve if by reducing frustration and boosting engagement, the OC Model lengthened your average retention time from 3.2 years to four or five?


Skeptics can be forgiven at this point for wondering if in promoting the Org Graph and Organizational Cognizance Model, I am guilty of the same sort of complexity creep I criticized earlier. Isn’t this, like other flashy apps, just an additional box to check or hoop to jump through, yet another Node making things more complicated for ICs?

My sincere answer is, no, absolutely not. Organizational Cognizance is about visualizing and understanding what’s already there, “the messy reality” of your organization, as I said at the start of this chapter. The Org Graph and Organizational Cognizance Model don’t add anything new. They simply provide tools that allow ICs to fully understand their existing Positions and Purpose, the Meetings they already attend, the Systems they already interface with, the Workflows they already participate in. OC doesn’t add complexity, it reduces it by bringing clarity and transparency.

“… software is something you use to automate what you’re already doing and have already mastered versus forcing you to do something you’re not already doing and have not mastered.” Brent Sprinkle

A business guide and computer science friend of mine, Brent Sprinkle, argues, “… software is something you use to automate what you’re already doing and have already mastered versus forcing you to do something you’re not already doing and have not mastered.” You can think of the Org Graph and Organizational Cognizance Model, then, as automating and elucidating a process that’s already taking place in the brains of frustrated, confused, and often overwhelmed ICs. The Org Graph simply helps them to connect the dots, to visualize the connections and Nodes they are already a part of and interacting with, but are not yet fully Cognizant of.

At a critical juncture in the film, The Matrix, the maverick Morpheus offers the confused main character, Neo, a choice:

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth.

The Organizational Cognizance Model and Org Graph simply offer a way to visualize the truth about 21st-century organizations, with all their Systems, Processes, Teams, Meetings, Workflows, etc. If, as I have argued, an organization is a fiction resting on the belief of its ICs, handing out Blue Pills and the message “believe whatever you want to believe” is beyond risky. Instead of one organization built on a set of shared beliefs (the Red Pill), in the Blue Pill scenario, you sleep and wind up with as many organizations as you have employees, none of them aligning with the actual mission and Purpose.

Clarity point, no, we are not completely throwing out the Org Chart, that would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The baby, your Org Chart, just needs to grow, learn, become self-aware, self-feeding as it grows to adulthood and cognizance as an Org Graph.

In The Matrix, Neo doesn’t just feel that there is an entire world hidden beneath the surface, one he glimpses but can’t grasp, he is desperate to unlock its mysteries. He wants to understand. He wants Cognizance. So do your ICs. Give it to them. Pop the Red Pill with me in Chapter 2 as we delve deeper into the Organizational Cognizance Model.