How to grow a karass


Photo by Thomas Hawk

In Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invents a couple of terms I really like. A karass is a community of people without formal links but who work together to get things done, whereas a granfalloon is a grouping who imagine they have something in common, but the association is actually meaningless and unproductive.

As David Cohen put it to me, a big company's marketing department is a granfalloon, your personal network is a karass. This resonated with me because that's how we made things happen in Apple. My term at the time was "a conspiracy of engineers", but the idea was to discover curious and motivated people outside my immediate team (and sometimes even in suppliers like ATI or NVidia) who wanted to see Apple achieve some goal. We'd informally talk, figure out an approach that might work, often code up a prototype, and then approach our respective managers with a joint proposal.

This is the only way I've seen innovative things get done in big firms, but it's immensely difficult to create those informal networks. It took me years of water-cooler chats, lunches, popping into people's offices and general nosiness to get as far as I did. As I thought about the expertise and external contact location technology I'm working on, I realized that Mailana is all about building tools to enable karasses. I want somebody in my old position to be able to find collaborators far more easily, and so help companies get a lot more done with the same resources.

Tools alone won't ensure these informal groups emerge. They can't be ordered into existence, they have to grow organically. What the technology can do is provide an environment they can thrive in.

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