Home > Ideas > New Forms

A Proposal for New Organizational Forms

CONTEXT

The time for change is upon us as a race. Perhaps it has been so for a very long time and only now do we collectively recognize the imperative. Either way, the world now requires that we do things differently as individuals and as organizations.

It is particularly at the organizational scale that things must change. The web of humanity has become sufficiently dense such that it is no longer possible to individually and locally resolve our Great Challenges. We must think bigger, reach broader, see farther, and turn to each other for solutions. This is not to say that individuals are no longer important and local communities are ineffectual. The fundamental unit of real change is still a person and the medium for change is still human relationships. But it is in the way we organize ourselves as companies, communities, and institutions that we will find a sufficient magnitude and nature of change to respond to world-scale issues. If there were a name to be given for such an endeavor, it might be anthrotectonics, which if it were a real word might mean large-scale processes affecting the structure of humanity’s critical consciousness.

The following is intended to outline in broad strokes how one might go about changing how companies and other large social enterprises organize themselves in better ways. The underlying assumption here is that contemporary models and methods of organizing have been made obsolete in this new era of massive change and uncertainty. We are surrounded by the evidence of this, yet solutions to the problem at hand do not yet abound. There are rumblings and musing and initial eruptions of new organizational forms; but none can yet claim that venerable title of new paradigm. And so we would like to join in the global process of ideation and see what will come of it.

And yet who else is there to take care of society, its problems and its ills? These organizations collectively are society…
Power must always be balanced by responsibility; otherwise it becomes tyranny. And organizations do have power.
- Peter Drucker

THE IDEA

To change the way people around the world organize themselves, we can find advantage in how organizations are both like and unlike organisms. More specifically, organizations are in part governed by the same evolutionary forces that the natural world is and in part free from them; each of these opposing views present unique opportunities to enact broad-reaching change. By viewing organizations as macro-organisms we can more easily make sense of the various forms they take, the forces that govern their dynamics, and the factors that lead to their success. On the other hand, organizations are fundamentally human in nature and, as such, exhibit the same free will that people do albeit on a larger scale. For better or worse, organizations have the ability to act irrationally (or semi-rationally) and temporarily remove themselves from the larger bio-social-political ecosystems they exist within. Said more plainly, organizations were made by humans- they can be changed by humans.

And that is exactly what we set out to do here – intentionally evolve the way organizations are formed and behave. To accomplish this goal, we propose two pivotal changes in how people organize themselves:

  • For organizations to become fundamentally more human in nature
  • For organizations to become more responsive to forces of change

It is our contention that in making these two shifts within organizations, significant and rippling change will be introduced in the very fabric of our societies. Building on the metaphor of anthrotectonics, what we are talking about here is an epicenter; a focal point for massive and cascading social change to radiate from.

CHANGE ONE: MAKING ORGANIZATIONS MORE HUMAN

We must begin to think of and build organizations less like machines and more like macro-organisms. The opportunity here is that in making organizations more natural and more human in their functioning, we release untold potential in the people that make them up and eliminate a tremendous amount of organizational dysfunction and waste. To accomplish this change, we must rethink both the philosophical and structural foundations of organization.

Purpose-Driven Design. Organizations must first and foremost be meaningful to the people who compose them and the people they affect. Products, services, organizational structure and processes should all stem from the essential purpose of the organization and that purpose must be compelling and authentic. By designing purpose-driven, meaning-full organizations, we open the door for the highest expressions of individual and group performance as well as important organizational outcomes such as loyalty, engagement, and citizenship behavior.

Facilitating purpose-driven design involves collecting the shared values, needs, and aspirations of employees, customers, and other stakeholders and crafting from this a unifying seed or DNA that represents what the organization stands for, why it exists, where it is going, and how it should develop over time. This seed must in turn be embedded in each individual within the organization such that there is a clear and compelling connection between a person and the organization. By doing this, people come to care about the organization, about what it does, about its growth and sustenance. For an organization to reach its full potential and for people to reach theirs within it, such is required.

Values-Based Management. A second characteristic of human organization is values-based management. The study of human behavior reveals that universal patterns exist in the structure of our basic goals and motivations and the strategies by which these are achieved. These patterns can be thought of as “primary values” and are recombined to form more complex goals and means that result in the rich diversity of behavior that we experience in the world. In organizations, this affords us the ability to purposefully map out constellations of employee values and motivations that represent the true drivers of behavior and engagement. Management styles as well as decision-making structures can naturally be shaped around these constellations of value that in turn will result in more effortless control mechanisms and positive interpersonal relationships.

Emergent Leadership. The next important component of human organization is related to leadership and is quite straightforward. In short, leadership should be defined primarily by followership. The essential determinant of who leads the organization should be how much personal, and not positional power a person has – the degree to which someone inspires, motivates, successfully directs, and is trusted by others. This is a fairly radical departure from the way leadership is thought of today in companies but is in line with other human social structures such as community organizations, guilds, and sports teams.
What is essentially being described here is emergent leadership. Instead of being a static group of executive managers with official titles, leadership could be thought of as a temporary condition and role that individuals play in order to inspire others within the organization and facilitate positive change.

Human-Scale Structure. If organizations are to become more human in nature, one of the most important changes would be to ensure human-scale structure. What is meant here is that the forms organizations take should be more akin to naturally occurring social forms. Reporting structures, functional groups, project teams, even buildings, should correspond to relevant and positive social patterns. For example, research shows that communities of people start to exhibit significantly more dysfunctions once they grow beyond 100 -150 people. Another common social pattern is that people with shared affinity and interests tend to work better together. Yet another finding is that people who sit within 30 feet of one another within a building have dramatically higher levels of trust than outside this radius. Each of these examples has direct implications on how organizations structure themselves and represent only a few of the ways in which companies could be built on a more human scale.

Organizational Lifecycle. Another essential component of the shift to more human organizing is the consideration of organizational lifecycles. While this is a widely published notion, very few organizations really incorporate this into how they operate. Taking a macro-organismic view, the concept of lifecycles becomes vital to the successful design and management of organizations. A process or policy that was relevant during the founding years of a company will not often be viable once it enters a more mature stage of life.

Most established organizational lifecycle models mirror the human lifecycle with common stages being formation/birth, growth/childhood, maturity/adulthood, and decline/death. Some models throw in a revitalization stage at the end for good measure but even when this stage is depicted optimistically, the undertone is that such rejuvenation is unlikely. This is clearly where the analogy breaks down and the notion of immortality or reincarnation is not easily applied to companies given our knowledge of organizational realities.

A stage that is clearly missing in the published literature is reproduction. This is how organisms sustain themselves in the long run and is perhaps the most import stage in natural lifecycles. For organizations to reproduce, they might sub-divide themselves at the peak of their maturity and engage in some form of ideological and technical pairing and mating. Alternatively, they could seek out another organization that complements and supplements their organizational DNA to pair themselves with. In either case, the result should be a newer, smaller, fresher startup company that bears with it the best parts of its progenitors along with sufficient resources and space to grow. Organizational reproductive cycles notwithstanding, understanding what stage an organization is at in its lifecycle and the implications of that stage will have dramatic effects on the success and wellbeing of the organization.

CHANGE TWO: MAKING ORGANIZATIONS MORE RESPONSIVE TO CHANGE

The second imperative for organizations is to become more responsive to change. This notion will likely sound quite familiar as modern management theory has become infatuated with the notion of change. Buzzwords like flexibility, agility, adaptability, nimbleness, and lean abound. For the most part, many of these concepts can be chalked up to flavor-of-the-month management fads that will fade as quickly as they appeared. The difference in what is being presented here centers around HOW organizations become more responsive. Typical approaches to organizational agility center around technical process improvements and the elimination of bureaucracy and hierarchy. While these adjustments are often necessary, they will not necessarily bring about more responsiveness to the critical challenges an organization must face.

Evolutionary Models. Any solution to increased responsiveness must be rooted in the underlying need; and that is to contend with forces of variation and unpredictability that arise from inside and outside the organization. In other words, to respond creatively to challenges and opportunities from within and without. This represents a systemic, evolutionary view of organizing and takes into account the key factors that govern an organization’s survival. The theoretical shift here is from management cybernetics to organizational systematics; from mechanistic controls to organic synchrony. The result of this shift is an emphasis on self-organization over centralized authority and a new organizational discipline of alignment. Given that the former goal is largely addressed in the previous section on making organizations more human, we will focus now on the later point related to organizational alignment.

Organizational Alignment. Aligning organizations for responsiveness involves adjusting the key levers of change to match the character of internal and external change forces. These key change levers are culture, strategy and social networks. Ensuring that these three transformational elements of the organization are synchronized with its key challenges and opportunities will result in sustained organizational performance and viability. The act of alignment follows three simple principles:

PRINCIPLE 1: As internal and external forces become more unpredictable, culture, strategy, and social networks must respond by becoming more emergent. Conversely, greater predictability in internal and external forces calls for greater stability and intentionality in culture, strategy, and social networks.
PRINCIPLE 2: An organization should continuously orient itself (either internally or externally) toward the greatest sources of unpredictability and variation. PRINCIPLE 3: The culture, strategy, and social networks within an organization should be synchronized with one another.
To summarize the three change levers in more simple terms, strategy can be considered what we intend to do and how we intend to do it, culture is how things are really done, and social network structure is with whom we do it all. While strategy and culture are often cited as critical performance factors within organizations, social networks are, for the most part, overlooked to the detriment of a company. The important point here though is that bringing the three transformational components of an organization in sync with one another and with the key challenges that an organization must face on an ongoing basis will result in sustained organizational performance and viability.

Open Organization. The second important implication of an evolutionary view on organizations is to move from mostly closed to partially open organizational systems. A key component of adaptation in natural environments is the exchange of beneficial genetic characteristics between organisms. Organizations today have few comparable mechanisms that enable the propagation of positive variations. A top executive transferring from one business to another, bringing his or her knowledge along the way or a best-practice sharing platform are two examples of such exchange. The reality is, when something works really well within an organization, it often stays within that organization and is not shared widely or tested widely for relevance. The study of organizational classification and taxonomies, know as systematics, offers a true platform for sharing. If universal categories and dimensions of difference can be found across organizations and these in turn are systematized and shared as a universal language of organizational design, then it becomes far easier to propagate beneficial variations on a large scale. What is required here is a standardized organizational modeling language and open-source platforms for publishing the true diversity of organizational forms that exist in the world.
Implicit in this suggestion is the assumption that capitalist philosophies have made us overly reliant on competitive processes at the great cost of eliminating cooperation as a viable strategy for survival. Competition can be a very positive force for change and improvement, but it is in cooperation that individuals and groups experience the most valuable transformations.

In Summary. Together, the two goals of making organizations more human and more responsive represent a sea change – an anthrotectonic shift - in how people think, see, and organize themselves. We move from mechanistic structures of organizing to humanistic forms, from insentient automated control structures to self-organizing adaptive ecosystems.
To get such a change started, we begin by gathering together as many like-minded change agents and change-ready organizations as possible and creating practical plans on how to make real adjustments to how we do things. We look to the areas outlined above in order to initiate rippling, radiating transformations. To summarize, we must:

  • Allow for emergent leadership
  • Align organizations for responsiveness
  • Build human scale structures and platforms for open organization
  • Factor in natural organizational lifecycles

The commitment required to build such organizations goes beyond typical organizational change and encompasses personal transformation and changes to the world at large. In the end, we must come to see our organizations as vehicles for bringing about world-scale positive change.