What does it mean to ‘design’ complex organizations?

In this post I am curious about a set of approaches which seem to have family resemblances with, and claim to be at least partly based on, insights from the complexity sciences similar to ones taken up and developed on this blog. As with the last post I try to understand the methods in their own terms before offering a critique.

I take together the holacracy method, the sociocracy movement, which appear to be mutually informing to a degree, and Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations[1]. All three offer a partial critique of contemporary management practice and promise a more effective way to structure and run organisations based on principles of ‘self-organisation’. Holacracy in particular claims to offer ‘a complete packaged system for self-management in organizations’, while Reinventing Organizations claims to offer a new worldview. I do not intend to explore the similarities and differences in great detail for fear of losing both myself and the reader, but try to cover some of the main assumptions in each. As with Clear Leadership, there are quite detailed prescriptions as to how to fully realize the perspective. (readers can listen to a recorded telecall here where one of the proponents of sociocracy, James Priest, describes what he sees as the similarities and differences between the different approaches, and includes reflections on Agile and pattern language, which I do not address).

Sociocracy, Holacracy and Reinventing Organizations – the basics.

All three perspectives point to the inadequacy of current methods of organizing and critique in particular hierarchical organizational structures, top down command and control, and contemporary theories of leadership which privilege the visionary leader. The proponents of sociocracy et al. think that orthodox structures and contemporary managerialism (although they do not use this term) lead to authoritarian relationships which work against drawing on the wisdom of the group, and curtail individual autonomy. Clear Leadership, the subject of the last post, does not offer a critique of leadership, but does share in common with the three perspectives under discussion an interest in relationships of collaboration, trust and cooperation and drawing on the wisdom of the group, which are thought to be necessary to increase innovation and organizational effectiveness.

Sociocracy claims as part of its heritage the sociology of Comte, one of the first proponents of the discipline of sociology which aimed to think more scientifically about the social, with principles of engineering and cybernetics applied to ‘human systems’. Dutch electrical engineer Gerard Endenburg put his workers in teams, or ‘circles’, organized hierarchically, where all decisions within the circle are reached by common consent. Organizing staff into circles, or inter-linked teams, are common to all three perspectives. While sociocracy suggests a gradualist approach to organizational change, holacracy, on the other hand offers a more comprehensive programme, a ‘complete package’ for transitioning wholesale to a holacratic organization based on a ‘constitution’ which covers the way to design your organizational structure (circles and sub-circles), efficient ways to run your meetings, and problem-solve ‘without bureaucracy’. Holacracy draws on the parts/whole thinking said to originate with both Arthur Koestler and Ken Wilbur, where the part is both autonomous and contributory to the whole at the same time. (Readers of this blog will recognize that this parts/whole thinking originates with Kant and his regulative ideas about Nature).

Frederic Laloux, meanwhile, describes an organization as a complex adaptive system (CAS), a ‘living breathing system’, which has an evolutionary purpose, and a purpose beyond that of the individuals who make up the organization.  It is made up of people, but exists somehow independently of them at the same time, although Laloux does not make clear what this means in material terms. He makes a bold claim that there is evolution in organizational structure which reflects a particular stage of the development of human consciousness. We develop from being driven by our impulses to being preoccupied by control, and latterly to a ‘Teal’ age when we can disidentify from our ego needs and listen to our authentic selves. We can listen to the deeper, wiser parts of ourselves and to the organizational purpose. In Laloux’s understanding of organization as CAS, the parts serve the purpose of the whole, they interact in a non-linear way, and their interactions are governed by simple rules. There is constant adaptation between the parts (employees?) and the whole, and between the whole and the environment to ensure survival.

All three perspectives claim to be egalitarian in their intent. Sociocracy and holacracy in particular claim that applying their methods means that decisions are not made autocratically or on the basis of prejudice or politics, but rather on reasoned argument. When a team member senses a gap or tension between what is and what could be, and makes a recommendation to the team as to why a change should be made, an elected facilitator holds the ring while the team member’s ideas are tested by questioning from other team members. The holacracy constitution has a very detailed account of how this might be done which currently stretches to more than 20 pages.

So each of the three perspectives privileges the idea that human beings are somehow prevented from reaching their full collaborative potential because of restricted ways of working and organizational structures which get in the way. Each of these perspectives argue that they enhance value alignment, trust, co-operation and harmonious working, create greater organizational resilience and distribute power throughout the organization (although power is hardly mentioned as a factor in Reinventing Organizations). Organizational politics are largely considered an impediment to effective organizational working, as are managers and leaders; they are part of an ‘old mentality’. Staff in organizations are said to be self-organizing, or self-managing, because they operate according to clear rules of engagement which enhance transparency.

Some assumptions in the models

One of the first things to notice about all three perspectives is that they appeal both to science, and to emancipatory thinking. And in doing so, one might argue, they also invoke the religious imagination. In Laloux’s case the appeal to the mystical is both overt and deliberate. I think this is an important phenomenon in contemporary organizations where managerial thinking and language can make organization life seem flattened and meaningless. Who, for example, is content to be thought of as a human resource and looks forward to their next appraisal if it is based on a dry assessment of whether last year’s objectives have been met or not? One way of understanding this linking, or relinking of mystery to work, prevalent also in Peter Senge’s books, is a sacralisation of the workplace as the principle site of spiritual fulfillment, however we interpret the term. We might understand this as an attempt to make today’s organizations more meaningful, or see it as yet another colonization project, a corporate claim on your soul as well as your body, depending on your ideological perspective.

The rational/emancipatory nexus is that we can apply the same kind of rational thinking to social life that we do to the natural world, and evolve as higher and higher social beings. This was de Condercet’s[2] dream in the 18th C, for example, one of the first exponents of what we have come to understand as sociology. Laloux follows in de Condercet’s footsteps by imagining that that human beings gain ever higher levels of consciousness. In de Condercet’s case there were ten stages of human development until, in the last stage, we are able to banish inequality and increase human happiness based on the ‘general laws directing the phenomena of the universe’. Laloux is not assuming that each stage of development is ‘higher’ as de Condercet does, however, but that each stage, and the form or organizing which accompanies it, is adapted to the age and stage of society in which if finds expression.

So there is a clear thread of rationalist/positivist thought in each of these perspectives which dates back to Kant, continuing through de Condercet and Comte to Habermas. Habermas’ theory of communicative action[3] imagines the abstract conditions under which human beings can communicate and be understood, untrammelled by unequal social relations and power. Equally, but from a critical and emancipatory perspective, in these OD methods it is thought that there are more rational, procedural ways of conducting ourselves, so that we can set aside our differences and the messy ambiguity of staying in relation with each other. Through the application of reason can we overcome our fear of tradition, of religion and of authority and release ourselves from our need to dominate each other. So far, so critical.

A critique from an alternative understanding of the complexity sciences

In all three cases of sociocracy, holacracy and Teal organisations, proponents of the perspectives conflate self-organization, a property of agents in CAS, with self-management. As an alternative, and based on the understanding of complex responsive processes, on this blog I have taken self-organization to mean simply and only the local interaction of agents with other agents in their vicinity. In other words, if we take up the insights from CAS by analogy, social life is always self-organizing in the sense that we are always acting locally trying to co-operate and compete with others. It implies no necessary critique of hierarchy, nor of management, managers or leaders.

Of course, astute readers will have noticed that this blog maintains a critique of both managerialism, a particular form of management thinking, and the overblown discourse on leadership. But this is not the same as saying that there should be no managers and no leaders. Indeed it seems to me that sociocracy in general and holacracy in particular simply replace one form of hierarchy and management with another. (This is an overt acknowledgement here that power produces as well as constrains, a strong theme in the work of both Elias and Foucault). Within each circle there are members called facilitators who are more powerful than others, and there is a governing circle made up of representatives of all the other circles. So some kind of hierarchy is always necessary, no matter what you call it. In a critique of Laloux’s thinking Zaid Hassan points out an important hierarchical contradiction in the former’s book when he stipulates that a prior condition for creating a Teal organisation is that the founder or CEO has a Teal mindset. In other words, it is still the CEO who ‘creates the conditions’ for others to be liberated.

It seems to me that in being naïve about power, all three perspectives both overstate and understate the operation of power in social life. In assuming that leaders and managers are powerful and workers are powerless, they overstate the effects of management power. Anyone who works in an organization understands the daily acts of subversion, the hidden transcripts, the rebellions, the work-arounds which take place in organizations which are authoritarian, or even conventionally managed. Power is a function of all human relating. Additionally, it completely misses the point that everyone, no matter how powerful, is also caught up in relations of power. No one can do precisely what they want, because they too are subject to the pressures of scrutiny and surveillance, as well as pressure from peers and the influence of internalized authority. Organizational life is a game of games, not an environment where those at the top do to those at the bottom.

And in terms of understating power, the proceduralised ways of interaction on offer, which claim to eliminate politics and power, will never actually do so. These procedures are, as the political philosopher Lois McNay has observed, drawing on Bourdieu, ‘socially weightless’[4]. What she means by this is that the prescriptions for dealing with politics and power are very abstract and far removed from the urgencies of everyday practice. The abstract account of conflict, that on the basis that people detecting a ‘tension’ can make a rational and convincing argument for going ahead with what they propose, completely misses the quite ordinary impediments to doing so. The ability to make one’s case is directly related to one’s social situation, and the specific qualities of the relationships between the people present, which no formal ‘constitution’ can ever fully take account of. In other words people are more or less confident, according to age, sex, race and life experience, and will have their own take on what they can and can’t say, and can get away with. The procedures in sociocracy and holacracy are over-reliant on rational argument and counter-argument. In the case of holacacracy in particular one can only expect the ‘constitution’ to grow and grow to take account of more and more messy human behaviour that previous versions have not legislated for.  In Laloux’s case, employees are invited to bring in their ‘whole’ selves, their emotions as well as their ‘spiritual’ side, but are also invited to submit to the good of the whole, the mystical presence of the organization which is thought to have a purpose of its own. In all three cases the perspectives have missed the point of the importance of constraint, conflict, ambiguity and misunderstanding in producing novelty.

It is something to think about that holacracy in particular seems to be popular in the tech sector. In the last two decades we have experienced the growth of enormously influential global digital corporations who may promise to ‘do no evil’ on the one hand, but find ways of commodifiying our data and selling it back to us, and subjecting us to increasing surveillance on the other. It is possible to see how the appeal to rationality as a way of covering over power and politics would be tempting for digital companies pretending to be on our side.

Summing up for now

All three perspectives have merit in the fact that they do not take for granted the dominant discourse on management and leadership, but are open to experimenting with different ways of working. In this sense they are both experimental in the pragmatic sense of the word and critical, more or less. They are predicated on finding greater autonomy for workers and promote a kind of localism which assumes that expertise is best located close to the site of where the work takes place. According to Priest’s account, sociocracy seems more gradualist and methodologically experimental in attempting to work with what already exists in an organisation; holacracy, on the other hand attempts wholesale change from hierarchy to holons, meanwhile Laloux appeals to mystical New Age fantasies of wholeness and different states of consciousness, which may appeal to industry leaders who may already feel that they have some unique and privileged insight into the human condition because of their material success. Each, to a degree, is imbued with emancipatory intent.

All three draw on the complexity sciences in either a mechanistic, algorithmic or mystical way and assume that self-organisation means no managers and no hierarchy. Sociocracy and holacracy try to replace politics and power with procedures, and in doing assume that unequal power relations can be done away with by rational argument and abstract processes defined in advance of the encounter. In so doing they produce a handbook, a manual of how to stay in relation with each other. The question arises, then as to what happens, to our full humanity, our grievances and imperfections, what we obsess about, whether justified or not. Meanwhile Laloux assumes that conflict will evaporate if we can find it within our ‘deeper’ selves to be good and can realize a higher state of consciousness. In each of these cases the point is missed that evolution occurs in complex systems because of constraint, and the escalation of small differences. Complex social life manifests in the paradox of trust and mistrust, transparency and hidden transcripts, agreement and disagreement. Alignment, agreement and conformity to rules are no path to novelty.

Like a number of OD disciplines, all three perspectives are methods-driven, rather than question-driven. In other words, they already have a solution handy, a handbook, in holacracy’s case an elaborate one, for whatever presents itself in terms of organizational context and difficulty. In this sense, although they each nod to the complexity sciences, they do not fully grapple with what it means to work in an emergent way with the grain of the particular habitus of the organizations they encounter. And I do not mean this in any mystical way, as though there is some kind of inchoate ‘whole’ which informs all activities, but rather the everyday conversational life of the organization which reflects figurations of power, ideology and conflicting values.



[1] Laloux, F. (2014) Reinventing Organizations: a Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, Brussels: Nelson Parker.

[2] Condorcet, Marie, J. A. M. de (1795/1955) (trans. Barraclough, J.) Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

[3] Habermas, Jürgen (1984) [1981]. Theory of Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Book). Translated by Thomas A. McCarthy. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (1987) [1981]. Theory of Communicative Action, Volume Two: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (Book). Translated by Thomas A. McCarthy. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.

[4] McNay, L (2014) The Misguided Search for the Political, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 41-46.



15 thoughts on “What does it mean to ‘design’ complex organizations?

  1. David Hurst

    This is a really helpful critique. There is a plague of these social engineering style methodologies that appeal to ‘science’ and ‘rationality’ but often with emancipatory overtones. Like you, I have wondered why these seem to be mainly a North American middle-aged, white, male phenomenon. My conclusion is that historically management in the Anglo-American world has been largely a pre-occupation of white males (many of whom are now middle-aged). So it’s not surprising that management consultants, in their efforts to ‘pitch’ their approach to receptive audiences, adopt their worldviews and mindsets.

    Since the reform of the business schools in the late 1950s, a Cartesian mindset has dominated management theory and practice in the Anglo-American world. Technically it is an empirical, mechanistic, quantitative, nomothetic, and analytic approach to management and organizations. It is a belief in the stance of the manager as a detached, objective observer in search of “facts” and “principles” and using deductive logic to predict and control the performance of organizations. They achieve this via the making of decisions and the issuing of crisp, actionable instructions accompanied by the appropriate rewards and sanctions. It is highly numerate view, with the mantra that “If it can’t be measured it can’t be managed” and even “If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist.” Thought precedes action and the highest form of thought is conscious, deliberative, instrumental ‘scientific rationality’. Management is a technical practice that demands the application of context-free principles in the efficient pursuit of goals that are often given externally (e.g. ‘maximize shareholder value’). Deviations from this normative practice are the results of a host of human cognitive biases (as well as organizational imperfections) that stand in the way of managers achieving the gold standard of deliberative rationality. From this perspective only better data (big data) and clearer ‘thinking’ (new principles) can change the situation…

    No rationality is independent of a tradition. No methodology can stand apart from ontology and epistemology. As you point out, these are tacitly positivistic philosophies – the belief that methods from the natural sciences can be applied in the social sciences. These philosophies largely ignore the role of power in all human relations. Unwittingly, by focusing on means and ignoring power, these peddlers of methodologies risk falling into the servants-of-power trap: “Whatever your ends, we bring you tools.” I don’t blame them – that’s where an unexamined Cartesian mindset leads you. Like many golfers (also historically a white, middle-aged, male phenomenon) executives want to improve but they don’t want to change. As Bobby Jones pointed out, they go to see their pros only when their games have gone from bad to worse, and they want something done about it in half an hour or less. They certainly don’t want to hear that it takes professionals at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become expert golfers. Thus the long run is treated as series of short terms.

    What is to be done? This post is long enough but you might want to take a look at my essay on Post-Rational Management here: http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Post-Rational-Management.php

  2. Alison Donaldson

    Hi Chris, I really appreciated your clear exposition of both the merits and weaknesses of these newish writings. Thanks. Will you also write something about the Brexit process?! When I hear people say “The Government has no plan”, whether this is true or false, it makes me squirm. Best wishes, Alison

  3. J

    “Sociocracy and holacracy try to replace politics and power with procedures, and in doing assume that unequal power relations can be done away with by rational argument and abstract processes defined in advance of the encounter.”
    If you have ever been part of a round, you know that a round with people you work with and hence are close with is never just rational. In a round, you allow your fellow circle members to see the world from your perspective, your needs, your concerns, your judgement. Yes, rational argument is important but human interaction is never reduced just to rational argument. Sociocracy, since it offers tools that allow humans to meet and interact as humans, reveals human beauty more than structure-less coexistence does.
    It sounds sometimes like the absence of structure and process would allow people to be truly themselves, and I don’t think that is true. To me, it is like art: sometimes a non-realistic piece of art carries more truth than a realistic one. In the same way, good process opens up the view to see the fellow humans in a more immediate way. Rounds might be process-heavy but they slow things down enough so we get a chance to actually witness our peers.

    “Alignment, agreement and conformity to rules are no path to novelty.” In the end, people have to make decisions together. Yes, consent is a pragmatic approach. To me, sociocratic process is like a safety net. We CAN just be with each other and talk until we are on the same page. (Remember that consent was born out of the quaker process.) But if that does not work (either because of lack of time, willingness, or due to too different experiences), it offers a structure that is a good enough default process. We see consent not as alignment or agreement but a way to move WHILE acknowledging differences. People will always have different experiences and needs, but just being with those differences will not build a house, bake a bread or give you a membership policy. Sociocracy is not aiming for novelty. It is merely a pragmatic account to include as much information and differences between people’s experiences as possible while creating the space to make decisions without falling into default power structures.

    We’d love to discuss this more.

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Hi J (James?),
      I’m afraid I have never been in an organisation which is attempting to practice sociocracy which reveals the limitations of writing about something theoretically rather than doing so based on experience. I have sat in a Quaker meeting a number of times, however, and I understand what you mean about this tradition, but I don’t see them reaching for tools or instruments to hold their discussions. And I suppose that this is one area where I see a difference between what you recommend and the way my own programme practices, in the tradition of group analysis. I don’t understand human exchange as ever being ‘unstructured’ in the way you suggest. We are always bound by the ‘rules’ of turn-taking, politeness (more or less), particular cultural expectations, and sense-making. We cannot do or say just anything. And it is precisely in the moments where understanding breaks down that we should refrain from reaching for tools and instruments to help us get through. In my view this is a way of avoiding the human difficulty of staying in relation, rather than aiding it. The instruments risk covering over power relating rather than doing away with it. Power realting then simply takes a different form and our focus is taken elsewhere. The way you understand human interaction is to double process: you suggest that we need to design a process to have a process. The group analytic tradition is focused on trying to stay as far as possible with the primary process of human relating, rather than reaching for tools to instrumentalise it.

      You misunderstand me if you think I am preoccupied with novelty. Rather, like Bourdieu I am interested in why things stay the same as much as why they change. However, in using the term novelty I am pointing to the way that social life evolves and changes over time, in the amplification of small differences. The dominant orthodoxy about how this happens in organisations is to suggest that change arises because senior managers and leaders chose the futures for their organisations. You are, in my view, rightly critical of this. An alternative explanation of how change happens, is , as you suggest, that groups of people work out a good enough ‘consensus’ to go on together, to take the next step with all their differences.

      In many ways I am sympathetic to what you are proposing. It is good for people to talk together and try and stay in relation. And I like what you say about taking the next step while hanging on to similarities and differences. I am also sympathetic to the pragmatic and experimental basis of what you describe, which seems to me to be very different from the ‘out of the box’ total solution which holacracy proposes. And learning to keep going in the face of potential conflict in the group analytic tradition is also a practice which has to be learned, because we have lost the art of doing so. However, as someone inclined to the critical school I am suspicious of instruments to govern human relationships. They seem to me to help us to duck out of our responsibilities to one another. This is not to imply that working with each other, if you like in ‘primary process’, is ever easy. So I can see why it would be tempting to think that we can fall back on a set of procedures for doing so – it alleviates anxiety.

      1. J

        Not James but Jennifer from http://www.sociocracyforall.org, and yes, very much in the same “camp” with S3 and James. Thank you for this discussion, I enjoy it.

        Here is what I do not seem to understand: how do you know where to draw the line between “natural process” and learned process?
        You are aware that there is always process in human interaction, as you say, turn-taking and much more that we are not even aware of (like Grice’s maximes and interpreting conventional implicatures etc). While some of those might be part of something essential human/innate, it is safe to assume that most is learned and therefor process. Then why can’t we re-learn process? Who tells you that “normal human interaction” is good? What you might call “natural” human interaction, some people in sociocracy (like Jerry Koch-Gonzalez) call “debate style”. When people talk with each other the way they are used to and find natural, there will be a lot of implicit power structure. Power-over has so many faces: talking longer, talking out of turn, name dropping, changing the question under discussion, there is just so much, and it is so invisible to many.
        My three-year old daughter, although exposed to a lot of “process-free”/debate style interaction, is just as familiar with doing rounds. As soon as everyone sits around the dinner table and there is time for meaningful interaction, she calls for a round. We have this tradition that everyone in the 7-people family tells two highlights from their day over dinner. My 3 year old INSISTS this happens in rounds and without cross-talking. Another example, my 10 year old facilitates book club in school doing rounds. Do they experience that as process, or as a “natural” way of doing things? They grow up in a community that is run sociocratically.

        In that way, looking at how much implicit unhealthy power-structure there is in natural interaction, and how easy it is to relearn process, I would say that (good) process FREES us from old power structures.

        Another point is that just ineffective conversation brings imbalance. I, personally, am very impatient and action-oriented. If we leave right and wrong behind, it is fair to say that I value being productive, which is a need just as valuable as “taking time with this”. To me, preparing good process for a meeting is a matter of respect to everyone’s time and contribution. I say that because low process (“creating space and being open” for me is a trigger phrase which tells me people were afraid to take a stand when preparing a meeting) does not work for anyone either but if I do not speak up, you won’t know that about me – which means my needs will be ignored. Keep in mind that your experience is your experience.

        What I like about a flexible and dynamic process tool kit like sociocracy is that it seems to “flip open” the moment you need it. Process (besides rounds which is just as natural once you re-learn) can be almost invisible when the group is in the flow (which includes holding everyone’s needs with care and respect). But as soon as there is an issue, there is something to fall back on. Process is our friend because when we’re triggered or distracted or overwhelmed, we don’t function as our best self. So when things get tricky, I’d rather rely on process than wait for people to come around. The best rounds in a meeting are process rounds, where we gather ideas on HOW to go about the meeting. A prime prompt, as an example, could sound like this: “I am not sure what to do this now. NAME1 and NAME2 seem to be having a really hard time and I want to find out what this is like for them and for everyone else, but we also wanted to get through this and value everyone else who is not as affected by this. Let’s do a round on what to do next” That’s what I want from any process: Teach me tools that support meaningful connection, not be in the way but a safety net when it is needed.

        We always teach sociocracy in combination with non-violent communication, because one cannot expect people without training (explicit training or by growing up that way) to use process if they don’t know how to be compassionate. Compassion and process go together and support each other. Process (like a round) can help you listen but it does not replace listening. Listening is great but if there is no process and just debate style, it is just so unlikely to happen.
        I strongly recommend you sign up for this, as it is happening in two days, and Jerry is going to do a mix of sociocracy and NVC. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/webinar-disruptive-behavior-in-meetings-insights-and-tools-tickets-28472960391

        My mantra is that talking about new ways of interaction is great, but it is DOING it that changes the world. Doing is always messier than thinking about it but also richer, more beautiful and more connected. Reality is messy and imperfect – but that’s what creates opportunity for deep connection. So instead of waiting for the perfect tool, I opted for something that is tried and tested, moves us forward and is much better than any unhealthy power way.

      2. Chris Mowles Post author

        Hi Jennifer,
        We can both agree that interaction is learned. I am not talking about anything ‘innate’ except our innate ability to orientate ourselves to others.

        I am not clear how you tell when power-relating is ‘unhealthy’ and when process is ‘good’. It seems to me that to decide that one process is good and another ‘ineffective’ is already to take an ideological position. There is nothing obvious to know when something is either ‘good’ or ‘effective’: indeed, I would argue that the very desire to make conversation ‘effective’ already puts you into an instrumentalist camp. It might be more or less enlightening, more or less helpful and more or less interesting, but ‘effective’? I feels to me like you are making a category mistake here, and one that we have come to take increasingly for granted in 21st C W Europe, that all human exchange has an instrumental purpose.

        If you were to agree with Elias and Foucault on our interdependence, then power is a function of all human relating and it has both good and bad effects. Only time will tell which. I am assuming that you will agree that you have ‘power over’ your three year old daughter, and that’s to her benefit for now. Power produces as well as constrains and oppresses. We don’t get anything done without the exercise of power, and the fact that most of the time you have power over your daughter enables her to grow and thrive.

        What is this need to function as your ‘best self’? This worries me just as much, unless you want to live in a monastery. This appeal to goodness is often a way of covering over contestation and dissent. I think it important to come to terms with who we are as we are as a starting place for being empathetic to the pain of being human. Manifesting ‘our best self’ then is surely about acknowledging our flawed humanity, our own and other people’s. There is no quick leap via tools and techniques to any sense of what our ‘best self’ is without our first fully understanding our worst selves.

        I’m afraid the moment you start talking about ‘using process’ and being trained in non-violent communication you have lost me. Was it Freud who said that only children and animals need to be trained? And I don’t accept the distinction you make between theory and practice, nor that sociocracy tools are the ones that I need to fall back on because they are ‘tried and tested’.

        Good luck with sociocracy. We are all entitled to our dreams.

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  5. Bernhard Bockelbrink

    I don’t think you can ‘design’ an organisation , what you can do is support it’s incremental development towards a happier and more effective place.

    The article seems to conflate two variants of sociocracy, Endenburg’s Sociocratic Circle Organization (SCM) Method and Sociocracy 3.0 (S3), the latter being discovered and developed by James Priest and myself. I would agree that SCM and holacracy are methods-driven, but I don’t think that’s the case for S3.

    While SCM is advocated as a governance method, S3 is a toolbox to support organisations in navigating the challenges of developing an effective organization in a hypothesis-driven way, and in the process, work with the current state of the organisations, including figurations of power, ideology and conflicting values.

    The tools (or patterns) contained in S3 are suggestions how to address common challenges many organisations are facing, with the explicit invitation to adapt these patterns to the context of the specific organization: We embraced openness (“take just what you want, adapt as you see fit”) as one of the design principle of S3, there’s even a pattern for for adapting patterns.

    Nothing in S3 is prescribed, not even the seven core principles all patterns are based upon: empiricism, transparency, equivalence, consent, accountability, continuous improvement and effectiveness. So there’s no such thing as “adopting” or “using” S3, or a “transition” towards or an “implementation” of S3, organisations merely experiment with one or several of the patterns to discover how to become more happy and productive.

    Of course there is an emancipatory perspective to S3, the idea that there’s ways how we can engage with each other in a productive way and develop strong relationships based on respect and trust, especially in the face of diverse ideology and values. S3 supports people and organisations in discovering how they might do that in their specific situation.

    As I see things, management, managers and hierarchy are simply three patterns organisations commonly implement to address specific functions, but most organisations never follow-up and evaluate the effectiveness of their specific implementation, and whether there’s a suitable alternative to the pattern itself. S3 provides alternative patterns, which are, in my opinion, often better suited for organisations implementing “agile” methodologies, as a hierarchical organisation (and the individual disciplinary power that comes with a hierarchy) often prevents both the development of an agile mindset, and the unhindered flow of information required to make and evolve decisions.

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Hi Bernhard, James and I have corresponded and have agreed to continue the conversation. There seems to be little documentation available about S3, or if there is, then perhaps I haven’t seen enough of it. So I am happy to keep going to discover what we can discover.

      I am still keen to find out more about your understanding of disciplinary power, because in my view it is both productive and constraining. I still detect what I see as a naive binary between productive, happy organisations where information is flowing freely and everyone resolves their differences through trust and defined procedrues for resolving differences, and hierarchical organisations where managers ‘do’ to other people, who are helpless victims of disciplinary power and can’t say what they think.

      I am still interested in the idea of an ‘effective’ organisation, because for me it raises the question, effective for whom and according to whom? All organizations will always be a mixture of effective and ineffective, depending on whom you ask, when you ask and how you decide.

      As for an ‘agile mindset’, well I think that needs more exploration too.

      This is important stuff and needs more discussion.


      1. Bernhard Bockelbrink

        It is my observation that the INDIVIDUAL disciplinary power which comes with a hierarchy is often an impediment for organizations, as it takes a certain level of integrity and skill on the part of the individual who wields that power to ensure that there’s still a safe space for people to speak their mind to those in charge of their works assignments and of negotiating their next pay rise. The people who might consider themselves ‘victims’ also bear part of the responsibility for that situation. This doesn’t make the problem go away, though.

        Of course you can try and improve both sides, which comes at a cost, and will be successful in some organizations. And then there’s entirely different patterns for solving the same class of problems, so organizations can also try those instead.

        Here’s my take on effectiveness: Consider an organization as a group of people who collaborate towards a shared goal, effectiveness would be measured in relation to that goal (or purpose, driver, vision…). Organizations need to invest into identifying their goals and making them transparent to their members, they can actually have the discussion about effectiveness, and experiment with different ways of becoming more effective. If in an organization there’s different perceptions of effectiveness, this would be an indication that these people would need to talk.

        What is an agile mindset? A good description is “to turn on a dime for a dime”, i.e. embracing change by creating value in small increments and making sure you have both the skills and the systems to effortlessly turn if you need/want to. Does that explain it sufficiently.

        You might want to take a look at my website http://evolvingcollaboration.com/sociocracy-30/ , there’s e.g. my beta version of the handbook, some slide decks, and other materials, also an article about intentional change in organizations which might help to put things in perspective: http://evolvingcollaboration.com/a-model-for-intentional-change-in-organizations/

  6. Paul Tolchinsky

    I think the distinctions drawn and many of the conclusions are very helpful. As co-founder of the European Organisation Design Forum, I do believe that you can consciously create the systems in which you live and work. I have been working with organisations for 40 years, doing just that. I see all three of the “options” described as prescriptive solution sets. They do not “design” but rather impose a new order….design is discovery and no two should be the same. In the old days we had Socio-Technical Systems, but this also became a checklist of things to do and solutions to implement. The founders saw design as an action learning process, not a cookbook! When you use the word “Design” in the title, you do it a disservice I think.

    Finally, we ignore Karl Weick, who wrote about self-designing organization in the 1990’s. We forget about Russell Ackoff who wrote about circular organizations, rather than heirarchies, in the 1990’s. We seem to have forgotten the work of Trist and Emery, both describing organizing for chaos and turbulence. They talked about governance, not management or leadership heirarchy.

    I think the article adds lots of value in understanding the three espoused in vogue approaches, I would hestitate to call them design methodologies. With apologies

  7. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Paul,
    Yes, perhaps I do the word ‘design’ a disservice as you intend it, but I was trying to understand it as the promoters of the different methodologies themselves understand it.

    That said, I am less convinced than you about the principles of design even as you mean it. I would certainly not argue that the way an organization is ‘structured’, if by structure you mean the way the hierarchy is organized, makes no difference. However, I am less interested in ‘structure’ as an abstraction and much more interested in the way that people relate with each other in an organization, how power works, what people talk about, how the game of games is played. Both Bourdieu and Elias described this as habitus, or what we might think of as ‘culture’. My contention is that habitus, or culture, or social object cannot be designed but emerges in the day to day interactions between engaged human bodies. Attempts to ‘design’, if by design we mean influence the way people behave with each other, will always have unpredictable consequences.

    I have no idea what it would mean to organize for chaos or turbulence. My understanding is that organizations have always been sites of stable-instability and predictable-unpredictability.

  8. Chris Mowles Post author

    To be honest Bernhard, there is lots to recommend about the way you go about making your work public, the way you encourage people to adapt what you offer and the primacy that you give to experimentation and follow-up. But conceptually I don’t see the difference that S3 makes to the discussion of strategy and change in organizations and see little reason to revise what i have said in the main post above. Whether you call it a pattern or a tool or a technique, the conceptual underpinnings of S3 seem to me to be pretty orthodox.

    You say ‘in many organizations big change initiatives are not particularly successful.’ Quite right. But then you go on to say: ‘The more members share the same mental models about organizations and change, the greater is an organization’s capacity for intentional change.’ You privilege alignment, agreement, and what you think of as intentional rationality. The idea is that choosing managers can bring about the futures they desire. So here again your prescription is pretty much what every other systemic model of change management has offered, as Paul notes above, for the last 40 years.

    So on the one hand you argue that wholesale organizational change initiatives largely fail, then you go on to recommend a wholesale organizational change process which is consistent with the current orthodoxy, which has led these initiatives to fail. You seem to be suggesting, then, that there is nothing wrong with way that org scholars have been thinking about change in organizations, its just that they haven’t tried hard enough, got enough alignment, or followed through on what they intended. So your model is predicated on greater alignment, more rationality and a belief that we get set aside our political and power differences if we follow the right procedures.

    The interpretation of the complexity sciences that this blog reflects understands the paradox of stability and change in organizations to arise because of the interweaving of intentions. The perspective argues that there is more than one type of rationality (see the work of Barbara Townley) and that the irrational and the unconscious has as great a role to play in what emerges in organizational life. The perspective understands mind to be the action of a body towards itself and not as a ‘mental model’ which reflects anything, and it certainly questions the possibility, or even the desirability, of people ‘sharing’ mental models. Social evolution occurs because of the exploration of difference and the paradox of the enabling constraints of our interdependences. Exploring difference involves politics and ethics, a more or less public inquiry into what we take the good to mean for ‘us’.

    However ‘intentional’ the change, there will always be unintended consequences, and this will not necessarily mean that we haven’t planned sufficiently or adequately shared our mental models, if this were even possible.

    So I suppose that both you and I would agree that methods which intend wholesale organisational change have a bad track record and that we’ve been in a bit of a hole. Maybe your prescription is that we dig the hole differently, whereas I would argue that we need to stop digging in this particular hole.

  9. Bhav

    I have found this blog and the conversation thread really interesting so thank you for everyone who took the time to write.

    What I am wondering about is what is at the heart / core / deeper underlying aim of each person writing?

    For Chris it seems to be something about allowing the ‘the way things are’ to be there.

    For Bernhard and Jennifer it seems to be something about eventually getting things done.

    Not sure if my words capture what I mean, hope you kind of get it.

  10. Pingback: Working in groups – an overview of themes from the 2017 Complexity and Management conference. | Complexity & Management Centre

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