Why the name Shearing Layers?

Shearing Layers as a name comes from one of those moments in my life when the world pivoted around a couple of extra notches. In 1994 Stewart Brand wrote and presented a TV show for the BBC called How Buildings Learn that is as much about systems thinking as it is about buildings.

One episode in particular, called Shearing Layers, contained a central idea that stuck in my mind. Chapter 2 of the accompanying book goes into some detail.

British architect Frank Duffy of DEGW is quoted as saying:

"Our basic argument is that there isn't such a thing as a building. A building properly conceived is several layers of built components,"

all with different life expectancies - the Shell of the building, for instance, lasts the lifetime of the building itself whilst the Set is the use of furniture which may change in as little of a few weeks. Brand develops this idea to include six layers with expected lives ranging from the eternal, for the Site itself, down the daily mobility of what he calls Stuff.

Here's Duffy again.

"Thinking about buildings in this time-laden way is very practical. As a designer you avoid such classic mistakes as solving a five-minute problem with a fifty-year solution, or vice versa. It legitimizes the existence of different design skills - architects, service engineers, space planners, interior designers - all with their different agendas defined by this time scale. It means you invent building forms which are very adaptive."

And I thought - he's talking about organisations!

Brand goes on to quote Robert V O'Neill's A Hierarchical Concept of Ecosystems - (not quite the page turner by the way).

"The dynamics of the system will be dominated by the slow components, with the rapid components simply following along."

which Brand explains,

"Slow constrains quick, slow controls quick."

And I thought - he's talking about organisations! Again.

So this site, and most of my working life since 1994, has been designed to help me answer the questions I've been wrestling with ever since that summer.

  • Layers arrow Can organisations be compared to ecosystems?
  • Layers arrow Is there a model that captures the "slow" and the "quick" of organisations?
  • Layers arrow What are the natural building-blocks and wavelengths of each part of the system?
  • Layers arrow Where are the levers of change?
  • Layers arrow How does the particular "slow" of an organisation influence the day-to-day "quick" that everyone is up to?

My first attempt to work with these kind of questions grew into The Trinity Group, a strategy consulting shop that moved increasingly into the slower, more fundamental layers. Trinity took a stakeholder approach to consulting. considering the interests of the three primary groups that sit around every meeting room table in every organisation: customers, staff and owners. We did good work but the world kept turning.

I developed the four layer, twelve block model you see above to understand the shearing layers of organisations. In 2007 I founded Clear Layers to help teams use the model to clarify their lower, slower layers and to help leaders deal with the quicker challenges of day-to-day management.

My aim is to move beyond simply considering the interests of stakeholders and work out how to organise from the slowest layers upwards to deliver success to every customer, member of staff, and owner.