The best innovations are simple ones, ones which seem familiar. You already know about Flash Organisations — at least, you already know about their results: Jaws, Titanic and Toy Story are among them. In fact, films are normally created by Flash Organisations. And yet, Flash Organisations are revolutionary. They’re temporary teams of people, composed of the best minds for a particular task and based on clearly defined roles, they work towards a concrete, complex goal in a project setting, and are dissolved as soon as the project is completed.
If Hollywood has built and used first generation Flash Organisations for decades, Stanford University’s Human Computer Interaction Master Programme is already experimenting on the third generation. These are teams that develop in just 15 minutes, work remotely from one another, and are coordinated by a platform called Foundry. Apps, for example, could be developed this way. But also, specific problems that businesses face could be solved through the creation and deployment of Flash Organisations.
When I first read the term “Flash Organisations” in a New York Times article last year – the lovely example of Hollywood films comes from the author of that article, Noam Scheiber – I was finally able to give a specific name to a great deal of what I’ve seen and done in business management and new organisational structures over my eight years with McKinsey and three years as a founder of COMATCH.
“A company will only be successful if it can quickly assemble a team of the best experts to tackle important projects.”
Why should entrepreneurs and managers pay attention to Flash Organisations? In the future, a company will only be successful if it can quickly assemble a team of the best experts to tackle important projects – it must be able to create Flash Organisations. These teams are the key to facing two of the biggest entrepreneurial challenges of our time: the diversification of the world of work and the increasing number of cross-functional, complex projects. What’s more, the creation of Flash Organisations is becoming even easier thanks to falling transaction costs for recruiting independent experts.
There are many reasons why dynamic organisational structures are opting for more and more project work. Repetitive tasks are becoming automated and, little by little, less time is needed to complete them in our daily lives. New challenges that involve digitalisation, globalisation and a growing customer-centricity require cross-functional, international teams. Old departmental thinking, in which employees with similar skills remain amongst themselves in their day-to-day work, is inadequate. If the customer demands it, then the purchasing department in Brazil, the sales department in Germany, and project development in China must all work together on product innovation. Technical tools like Slack or Asana have already made such settings much easier, by simplifying communication and project management between multiple parties.
We can see the fine differentiation of professional profiles in online marketing, a field that nobody had heard of 30 years ago, that grew with the rise of the internet. Nearly every company requires SEA managers responsible for the special area of performance marketing relating to Google Adwords. When it comes to dealing with organic Google search results, then SEO managers come into play, often supported by content specialists. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or LinkedIn are the world of social media marketers. Finding one person who is an expert in all of the above is impossible. Owing to their complexity, technically revolutionary developments like Google, which are being developed at an ever increasing rate, require that we dive in deep and continue learning for the rest of our lives. It is going to take us more time in order to be able to understand, explain and cope with such topics. Nearly everything will require specialists and nearly everyone will be a specialist. Consequently, a company that would like to be innovative, develop, sell, and market itself will not be able to hire all the required experts for every single area it touches upon. On the contrary, companies will have to focus on their USP and core processes, and outsource the rest.
“Flash Organisations will be a competitive advantage for the companies that master it.”
To outsource or not to outsource? The answer to this question always depends (amongst other things) on the transaction costs, which have decreased substantially in recent years when it comes to finding and hiring the right experts for a specific project. Many well-trained employees become anxious when they think about remaining in one company until retirement, so they strive for more freedom, self-determination and flexibility. They often find these qualities in professional independence, which is also a new point of contact: online marketplaces specialised in specific fields, such as 99 Designs for the creative sector, or Gigster for developers, which provide them with international orders. These marketplaces currently use algorithms to organise expertise, and in the future they will also employ AI. However, automation alone won’t guarantee quality: a human filter is still necessary. The marketplaces that are able to meaningfully filter applicants for the pools will guarantee quality and orientation to their clients.
Three years ago, I founded COMATCH, a market- place for independent consultants, with my colleague Jan Schaechtele. I know that in the world of management consulting, there are talented people who are well-trained, very busy, and not interested in a permanent position. The motivation of these consultants to work independently comes from increased flexibility and responsibility, well as better-earning opportunities com-pared to permanent positions. On the one hand, these consultants are able to struggle through the dark valleys of a consulting project, and on the other hand, if they consider the project’s success to be in danger, they don’t feel it is their duty to tell the budget manager what he or she wants to hear. Their external perspective and honest feedback are given room and are valued as they operate independently from any company. Permanent employees often react to these independent consultants with fewer reservations than they have towards traditional management consultants, and cooperative efforts become even closer and more successful. So marketplaces are an important engine for the growing success of Flash Organisations: they make it possible to find external specialists for each project component and to bring them into the team quickly. Together with additional external team members or internal resources, they turn into an inter-departmental project team held together by a project manager – a professional and congenial leader. Managers can use this elastic form of recruiting to access specialists from all over the world and develop huge potential for their innovations.
But how do Flash Organisations work? How I can make it so that an employee who comes out of a meeting Tuesday morning with project work and a certain budget X is then able to work on this task with the right team by Thursday? Sure, the marketplaces that can find the talent needed for my project; known as “trusted advisors” by Stanford professors Michael Bernstein and Melissa A. Valentine. Valentine call them. But all of this won’t work without a special company mindset, no matter whether it’s a traditional hierarchy or fluid holacracy: as soon as permanent employees become part of the Flash Organisation, we need department heads who are willing to make good people temporarily available for a project. These department heads also trust the employees will return to their jobs with valuable input from their interdisciplinary project work, and they also know that at any time, in order to reach their own annual goals, they might have to rely on col- leagues from other departments by means of a Flash Organisation. We need a work culture in which expertise defines the roles, because the roles define the Flash Organisation. We need employees who care less about titles than the success of a project, who have self-confidence instead of egos, and who can change their roles: today’s manager will do the legwork tomorrow. A project is managed by the person who has the most relevant experience – it doesn’t matter whether this person is part of the company or is external, nor how long he or she has been involved.
Flash Organisations are not just a tool, but also the expression of an entrepreneurial attitude which, when rigorously implemented, leads to new management. Companies will map their entire know-how pool and project needs into a closed data cycle: human resources meets company needs. Projects can be put together in a structured way. Transparency will be achieved – everyone can see who has relevant knowledge, as well as who has time to work on a project at any given moment, the direction of development each person is pursuing and which skills are currently missing. Can I help a colleague to grow into a new role, do I have to hire a new colleague or should I work with a freelancer on this project? The company of the future knows and can make the best choice.
In the future, the deployment of Flash Organisations will be a competitive advantage for the companies that master it.