The Corporate Event Horizon

We all like to think the whole Universe is centered on us. And thanks to relativity and whatnot, the whole observable universe really is centered on the observer! In science, the universe is constantly expanding, and every observer sees themselves as being at the center of that expansion.

Expansion - Meaning of Expansion
Books always use raisins in a rising loaf of bread to explain the expansion of the universe not having a center. Despite the fact that bread does have a center. So, here’s some raisin bread. Now you understand relativity 100%. Congrats.

You can’t see everything — you can only see a subset of the whole universe. Light doesn’t travel infinitely fast, and the universe isn’t infinitely old. That means you can only see a ting bubble of only about 15 billion light years around yourself. Aliens living in a distant galaxy half way across the universe can likewise only see a 15 billion light year bubble around themselves. And if those aliens are more than 15 billion light years away from us, we can’t see them and they can’t see us.

To clarify that a bit, it’s not just that we can’t see them with our eyeballs or our current telescopes — we can’t have any sort of interaction with them. We can’t ever have had any sort of interaction with them at any point in the past. And the things we are doing today can’t possibly be effected by any sort of interaction with those distant aliens. That is to say, they are beyond a metaphorical horizon, beyond which the events don’t matter to us and can’t be observed by us. Just like how you can’t see stuff below the Earth’s horizon. Hence, an Event Horizon.

Event Horizon (1997) - IMDb
This blog post has nothing to do with the 1990’s sci fi horror film.

So, why am I trying to shoehorn the concept of an Event Horizon into corporate life? When a corporation is small, everybody shares an event horizon. Three engineers wedged into one work room in a startup will hear each other’s conversations. When something breaks, they’ll all know about it. They all observe the exact same bubble in the universe. Their shared universe is small. And they can readily reach consensus about what’s important, what’s broken, and what’s working. They may disagree about what to do next, which Linux distribution or programming language is best, etc. But they exist in a shared universe and a shared understanding of basic facts. That shared universe which can not last forever. And the inevitable collapse of the shared perspective leads to all sorts of trouble that is, by its nature, impossible to observe directly.

The Inflationary Period

The Inflationary Universe | Astronomy
Adding mostly unrelated science diagrams hopefully emphasizes that I am misusing some science words and lends unearned gravitas to what I am saying.

As a corporation grows, those engineers eventually become senior people on teams working in different rooms. Some people leave and new senior people are hired. The company expands into a new building and those people work on different floors. The company expands to new cities and new countries, so the people working on one service are living in different time zones, living in different office cultures, and getting different benefits packages. Somewhere along that process of growth, some of those people interact so little that they may as well be aliens living in distant galaxies. They no longer have a shared concept of the observable universe.

This pops up in discussions of things like “company culture” which has been kind of a hot topic since the pandemic started driving remote work as default in a lot of industries. People rightly point out that it’s hard (or at least very different) to build (or fix) a corporate culture over Slack. But there hasn’t been as much introspection about how corporate culture really grew in a growing corporation before Slack. Sure, tons of executives have written books about how they did it. But they are all wrong. The executives of large orgs have no idea what the people at the bottom think the corporate culture is. The senior-most executives at a large org have an event horizon that restricts what they are capable of understanding.

To be clear, I’m not saying that they aren’t observant or that they are intentional liars in their books. I am saying that a fundamental limit comes into play at large scale, where they can not observe the whole universe any more. They observe their observable universe and try to draw conclusions about the whole universe based on what they can see. Your event horizon is never something you can directly observe. It’s just the point beyond which there are things you can’t see. Imagine that an executive launches an initiative to have fun events like board game nights in the office. They see some low level employees at the game night, and talk to them. The executive now writes the first draft of his book about corporate culture, “People like coming to my game night. I talk to low level employees at game night, so I have a good handle on what people are feeling, Corporate culture here is good and healthy.”

Amazon.com: The Good Game Company The Epic Beard Game : Toys & Games
If I put enough pictures in this, it might not seem like such a wall of text. I actually have a copy of this game I’ve never played because it’s hard to do board game nights during the pandemic.

But there is a huge selection bias at play here in the executive’s assessment. If the company has 2000 employees and ten make it to the game night at the central office, the executive isn’t talking regularly with the employees who are too swamped by badly managed projects to attend the game night. And they aren’t talking to the employees at other offices that aren’t running any fun events and are slowly burning with jealous rage about the main office. And they aren’t talking to the parents who need to go home and feed the kids so they can’t stay at work playing games all evening. Or the frustrated night shift crew that has to actually work over the noise of board game night. Etc., etc.

The executive then sells a million copies of their book about building corporate culture through things like board games that allow executives to interact with low level employees and not be detached from how things are going in the organization! Because the executive wrote accurately about everything happening within their event horizon, it all rings true. Other executives buy the book and try the strategy and observe similar results.

Meanwhile, from within the event horizon of somebody at a smaller satellite office, there is no board game night. There never was. For them, the corporate culture is defined by the local managers who might all be complete assholes to the people beneath them. But if they are nice to the executive at the main office, the executive thinks that things must be running great at the satellite office. And for the employee there, the executive writing a book about talking to all the regular employees is a complete stranger and would seem to be a hypocrite or liar.

Bringing it Home

I’ve been talking about separate physical offices because that’s a simple mental model. Obviously with so much being remote these days, that mental model has become less useful one. The corporate event horizon is definitely not a physical thing measured in feet and inches. It’s about connectivity between people. Physical separation is one way to limit the connectivity between people. But if you are scheduled in Zoom and Hangouts meetings all day while working from home, you’ll really only interact with the people directly in those meetings.

How to Visualize Social Network With Graph Theory | by Khuyen Tran |  Towards Data Science
Like with most things, thinking in terms of graph theory is useful. Red leaf nodes and Blue leaf nodes are probably mostly outside each other’s event horizons in this graph.

That’s not to say that those are the only people within your event horizon. I’m emphatically not just talking about people in a social network graph where anybody with more than N edges distance from you is “outside your event horizon.” This is more nebulous than that. It often happens that I am on a meeting with a colleague on another team and they’ll mention, “My boss says we can work on that next week.” Consequently, I am getting some information from the boss of that team, just indirectly. The further from me someone is in my interactions, the less information I get from them, with more lag, and less clarity. But if I still have some degree of indirect awareness of the person, they are within my event horizon. The things they do can penetrate my bubble and affect my life. But for a distant person I don’t interact with directly, a lot of what they actually do may lie outside my event horizon. They could spend 90% of their time working with a team I’ve never heard of because the org chart has grown so baroque. I’ll never hear about any of that hard work they are doing with that team I’ve never heard of. I wouldn’t even know where to begin asking questions about who is helping a team I’ve never heard of work on a project I can’t fathom for a customer I’ll never hear about. But more important than the fact that I wouldn’t know where to begin asking those questions, is that I’d never have any indication that there are questions to be asked about such things in the first place.

One thought on “The Corporate Event Horizon

  1. Pingback: Of course your JIRA backlog keeps growing. It’s math. | Will Rosecrans Blog

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