The true weight of bureaucracy’s heavy hand is being felt more keenly in organizations worldwide since the COVID-19 crisis and the rapid dispersal of millions of workers to remote locations. Annoying bureaucratic processes, ham-handed spyware deployments and erratic Brownian-motion Zoom meetings are compromising worker engagement in myriad ways. The scientific community has no special immunity from these effects, which embed themselves into its figurative cell structure.

Matthew Akamatsu and Kennan Salinero are research scientists in the San Francisco Bay Area who are thinking deeply about the need to free science from the heavy hand of bureaucracy. They are brainstorming on multiple fronts about ways to adapt the theories and practices of organizational self-management to thwart advancing bureaucratic metastasis. Future experiments might address challenges that include erratic funding sources, controlling lab heads, disconnected silos, lack of accountability and transparency, idea hoarding, skewed incentives, and many more.

Informed by metaphors of cell structure and behavior, Akamatsu and Salinero propose to disrupt the current rigidity of science bureaucracy with something much more adaptable. They envision a world where science is liberated from command-and-control and allowed to openly collaborate, adapt and fully realize the power of networks and collective intelligence.

The science world has some experience with this. According to Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini in Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside, the ATLAS project portion of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider represented a triumph of collaborative cellular networking. With over 1,000 research scientists from 180 institutions, ATLAS organized itself into teams based on peer-to-peer coordination, with no bosses.[i] Crucially, it came in on time and on budget.[ii] Was it effective? ATLAS was one of the two LHC experiments that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson in July, 2012[iii] (what some have called the “God Particle”).

Mark Burgess is a Ph. D. in Physics and former professor of computer science at Oslo University College. In 2004, he proposed Promise Theory, the notion of autonomous actors or agents (human or otherwise) who publish their intentions to one another in the form of promises in order to get things done.[iv] The idea of promises was a sharp (and attention-getting) deviation from the standard bureaucratic toolkit of obligation and imposition. Since promises between agents are scalable, the theory suggests that there are few challenges (like ATLAS) that could not be addressed more effectively by peer-to-peer cellular activity than by a soul-crushing mass of bureaucracy.

The science world is taking note. Let the experiments begin.

[i] Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside, Hamel, G. and Zanini, M., Harvard Business Review Press, 2020, p. 24.

[ii] Ibid., p. 25.



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