A short story. A sci-fi short story. A kitchen-sink sci-fi short story. You’ve been warned.
The flight had been delayed for another hour and my glasses had just been bricked by yet another update. Plus the rim was cracked from when I’d sat on it earlier. There was a printing and service station at the other end of the terminal, but I didn’t feel like leaving the lounge and weaving through the crowds of uncannies to get it fixed, just so I could read. So I sipped the free coffee, fiddled with the glasses, and looked around idly.
The SeaTac heirloom lounge had been renovated since my last trip. There was now fake wood paneling. The snack selection was more varied, but cheaper. No more fresh fruit. Worst of all, sections of the opaque corridor-side walls had been replaced with floor-to-ceiling etched glass sections. You could see passersby peering in through the gaps in the etching.
Well, I had nothing to hide, let them watch. At least I didn’t have to see bits and pieces of the uncannies if I sat facing the back wall.
The older man across from me was pretending to read a magazine, but he seemed bored and annoyed by the delay too. We were the only ones in the heirloom lounge. He tossed his magazine aside. I glanced surreptitiously at it. Real paper. Letterpress. What looked like hand-stitched binding. Nice.
He looked me over with a benign, patrician air. Sixty or seventy, I guessed. Not much anon there.
His eyes rested for a moment on my hat, making me wish I’d worn my other hat. The one not emblazoned with the chain logo, and without transcranial leads showing under the fraying band. But I needed to do some thinking on this flight, and the older hats still worked better than the cheap new ones.
He seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he spoke.
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I like mirroring principles in business a lot. My two favorite ones in business are Conway’s Law (product structure follows organizational structure) and Chandler’s Law (structure follows strategy). In conversations about business in recent years, I’ve been adding two more principles to complete a loop of sorts: market structure follows product structure and strategy follows market structure. The whole thing is what I call the data-driven death spiral, and is the reason I’ve become a partisan on the question of product-driven versus customer-driven thinking. It operates through unimaginative leaders navigating entirely on the basis of market signals, which ultimately leads to businesses chasing their own tails. The only way a maturing business can break out of the death spiral is through the actions of a very strong leader. One capable of injecting a stiff dose of imaginative authoritah from the top.
That said, I’ve been sensing that my model is incomplete in a significant way. The biggest mirroring effect is the one it is easiest to miss: structure follows context. A context is the evolutionary environment (which is not the same as the competitive environment) within which a business grows, and which they shape to serve their needs as they grow. A city is the classic example of a context, but there are other kinds, such as ancient trade routes, or github (for purely virtual software teams). Contexts host businesses, but are not themselves primarily or necessarily businesses.
A context is the sum of all history rolled up into a present-day operating environment, like a canvas with an evolving painting already on it. A new business must be painted onto some such canvas, just as software must be compiled for a specific machine. Only dictators have the luxury of razing a living context, creating a blank canvas (a dumb thing to do in almost every case).
Let’s look at the example of Seattle to see what I mean.
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