All Articles Leadership Management Leadership in a future of distributed everything

Leadership in a future of distributed everything

We are fast moving toward a world where hierarchical organizational structures will bend and break. What happens then?

5 min read




My favorite survey of 13-year-olds asked the question: “What percentage of your time do you spend online?”

The kids didn’t understand the question. It was a stupid adult question.

For those of us who are older than 21, we are offline, unless we are on. Some of us even say quaintly: “I’m going to log onto the Internet.”

For kids, they are always online, unless they are off.

While today’s internet is amazing, it is not sustainable in its current form. It is not secure enough, it is not private enough, and the business models (think online advertising) are not robust enough. I like to think of today’s Internet as the world’s largest market test for will happen over the next decade.

We are fast moving toward a world where hierarchical organizational structures will bend and break. Lots of diverse partners will come together in new ways to create new kinds of organizational structures that will be more fluid, less rigid. While this will feel like a radically new future, and in some ways it is a radically new future, there are deep roots in the past. The future that is about to happen has been brewing for a very long time.

Packet switching, the core technology of the internet, was originally called by Paul Baran “hot potato routing,” a much more accurate name. The organization of the future will be shape-shifting, where hierarchies will come and go. Such fluid organizational forms will have no center, they will grow from the edges, and they won’t be controllable. Innovation will happen at the edges, where diversity thrives.

Leaders won’t be able to be present in person in many cases, but they will need to be constantly in touch even when they are not there physically. In this future world, anything that can be distributed will be distributed. including leadership.

So, what will leadership look like for shape-shifting organizations in the future?

The best leadership advice comes from the military: Be very clear about where you are going, but very flexible about how you get there. Avoid certainty, but seek clarity.

The frightening truth is that criminal organizations are much better at running shape-shifting organizations than the rest of us. The military has been struggling to compete with shape-shifting terrorist organizations since at least the Vietnam War. They use terms like “commander’s intent,” or “mission command,” or “flexive command.”

Hot-potato routing, brought to life in what we’ve come to know as the internet, will amplify distributed organizations in ways that have never before been possible. Now, more than 50 years after packet switching was invented, distributed organizations will become globally scalable. In fact, distributed organizations will become mandatory in some parts of the world and some markets. Through the incredible reach of shape-shifting organizations, even very small organizations will be able to have a very big impact.

The big challenge is this: nobody yet knows just how to lead distributed organizations. The organization chart of the future will look something like this:

Credit: Bob Johansen

There are strong hints of shape-shifting organizations around us beyond the criminal economy. For example, I introduced this notion to friends at a large consulting company and they immediately said, “We are already a shape-shifting organization!”

I’m quite sure this is true for portions of some consultancies, but existing organizations are only hinting at what will be possible over the next few years. A growing array of small companies is showing the way, but it remains to be seen whether they will be sustainable and scalable.

Over the next decade, shape-shifting organizations will become much more common and distributed leadership will become mandatory, even though the literacy of distributed leadership is still very much a work in progress. Shape-shifting organizations will disrupt traditional organizations and in some cases, overlay or blend with them.

Shape-shifting organizations will constantly ask who is in the best position to make which decision at what time (what the military calls “flexive command”). Shape shifting organizations will require shape-shifting leadership.

Hierarchies will be too brittle to win in competition with shape-shifters. Nothing will be certain in this world, but everyone will hunger for a clear view of the future. Clarity will be rewarded, but certainty will be punished.

Leaders of shape-shifting organizations will need great clarity about where they want to the organization to go, but great flexibility about how they might get there.


Dr. Bob Johansen, a distinguished fellow with the Institute for the Future, has helped major corporations, universities and nonprofits prepare for the future. A frequent keynote speaker, Johansen is the author or co-author of 10 books, including his latest, “The New Leadership Literacies” (Berrett-Koehler, September 5, 2017).This post draws from that book.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter for entrepreneurs and future-builders.