The Cleanest Line

Weblog for the employees, friends and customers of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia. Visit to see what we do.

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    Working at Patagonia is not like working at most other companies. There are many reasons, but one is the lack of rigid hierarchical structure. The office doors of upper management are always open (when there are doors), questions are encouraged and the company’s managers rarely issue edicts or micromanage employees. This decentralized system of doing things may go against conventional wisdom, but Patagonia's system has not only worked, it's worked pretty well.

    There are however plenty of dysfunctional democracies in the world, at every level, so I often take interest in ones that seem to work. For that reason, I found Peter Miller's article "Swarm Theory" in this month’s National Geographic a great read.

    In taking a look at the behavior of different insects and animals, the article looks at the some of the necessary ingredients for any group to make the best collective decisions – such as a diversity of ideas, an independent mindedness among members, and the use of an effective mechanism to narrow choices.

    It also subverts a commonly held truth that, to make the right decisions, individuals need a group leader with a plan to coordinate and help them see the big picture. Instead, it concludes, if individuals live simply, follow some simple rules of their own and act on local information, the end result will be a well functioning system.

    In my experience this often seems to be the case, even if it doesn't appear so at first glance. When I was in Cambodia, most people still drove motorbikes. For someone visiting the capital of Phnom Penh, the roads seemed like pure chaos. Hordes of Cambodians drove on intersecting streets mostly without lanes, traffic lights or stop signs. They drove at any speed, often on the wrong side of the road, on sidewalks and through parks. Anywhere was fair game.

    Yet the longer I was there, the more I saw that there was a system and that system seemed to work, and worked pretty well. I still saw and heard about accidents, but they were definitely no more common than in the U.S.  My initial theory was that everyone drove in a heightened state of alert because at any minute a motorbike with five family members, including a child on the handlebars, could plow into you. But the longer I was there, the more I understood the rules of the road…however difficult they were to explain to visitors.

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy the article and it makes you think a little about how the swarms around you function!


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