The crystallized amoeba

Moving from flexibility to consistency doesn't happen everywhere all at once.

There are two closely related ideas that I’ve written about in this newsletter, that when combined lead to a mental model I call the crystallized amoeba.

The first idea is that on the flexibility/consistency trade-off, processes tend to move from flexibility to consistency over time, as an organization comes to better understand what they want and need.

The second idea is that it’s much easier to build a consistent technical solution to support an already-consistent process than to make a flexible process consistent.

So if you’re a technical leader supporting a growing and changing organization, where should you focus your energy?

The crystallized amoeba says to think of the organization as an amoeba, and your technical solutions as a crystal growing in the center of it.

(Disclaimer: I am not a biologist even though I work for a biotech company.)

As the amoeba stretches and squirms, any part of it that continues to move stops the crystal from growing.

But as soon as part a of the amoeba stops squirming, the crystal extends into that area and makes sure it stays put.

As the amoeba grows, so does the crystal, creating a skeleton that allows it to extend further. (Again, I’m not a biologist.)

Similarly, as a rapidly changing organization grows and evolves, certain structures and processes will become consistent enough for a technical solution to ensure that consistency.

The key is to recognize what processes are there, understand how to push the almost-ready processes in that direction, and have the discipline to leave the rest alone.