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The Intentional Organisation - Issue #39 - Intentional Self-Organisation
1. Intentional Self-Organisation
A lot of the discussion in recent years about organisations has been moving around a few dualities, particularly the following two:
Hierarchy vs. Self-Organization
Designed vs. Emergent
To me, these are false dichotomies, as they often describe elements that cannot be really compared. Emergence and Self-Organisation can be seen as natural dynamics of human interactions. Design is a very specific activity that wants to actively impact a system. Hierarchy is a product of a very specific design, most often associated with a command and control management style. Can hierarchy be the product of emergent human interactions? Probably yes.
Thinking in terms of System Theory and Complexity Theory, all these elements are useful components of the way we "think" in terms of organisations. Those dichotomies highlight also the limits of many of our discussions around much of the organisation science because we end up mixing things.
I'm not an academic purist, and I always accept pragmatic knowledge shortcuts that help people understand reality. I'm fine to use concepts we can easily handle also against domains that are not always easy to grasp.
Yet, it is important to consider certain limits that are often introduced by discussions that end up being too simplistic.
The sentence itself of Intentional Self-Organization may seem misleading. It seems to "mix" two aspects that don't go well together. One of the problems I often face with my idea of Intentional Organisation is that it somehow gets associated with command and control methods. The logic is that intentionality is associated with a top-down decision-making system.
Let's see why.
Building Intentional Randomness
The quote above comes from Ed Catmull's book Creativity Inc., a worthy endeavour in the history of Pixar. I find this quote remarkably eye-opening, particularly in the wake of so much management literature that always looks to highlight this or that leader as the "maker" of a company's success. The reality is that randomness and luck constantly play a role in any social system. This also partially explains why executives who exceptionally performed in one context did not perform well in another.
Catmull suggests a complete decalogue of how to build a creative culture. Still, most of the suggestions are about designing the scaffolding that allows informal processes to unfold and develop creativity.
This is the case of Serendipity, a vital engine in creative innovation. Yet the concept of serendipity involves the idea that events happen "by chance". So how do you design for this to happen?
In summary, there are two elements for this to happen.
On one side, you plan for occasions for serendipity to happen, increasing the frequency of occasional encounters with people. For example, Steve Jobs planned the Pixar head office with only one location for toilets because he wanted to have people stumble into each other occasionally. This is the organisational architecture that needs to be created.
On the other side, you need to ensure that the individuals are "open-minded" to ensure that the power of idea generation really breaks through. This is the individual component, which, in an organisational context, is achieved through recruiting and selection, training activities, learning and so on.
All of the above looks exactly like a "Petri dish": you create the environment in which emergent factors get vehiculated more quickly and allow growth. This is why I chose an image of bacteria because these simple unicellular beings are masters in self-organisation.
Why mixing up is dangerous?
The problem with seeing, for example, emergence and design as two opposites is that we lose sight of enormous opportunities. A lot of the issues with some companies trying to implement contemporary organisational models is that they try to do so solely from a design perspective. But autonomy and self-management, two critical factors for the success of many of these models, cannot be "imposed". It would be best if you created a fertile ground for them to grow. So you need to Design for Emergence.
Yet on the other side, we also see how important it is to "steer" self-management experiments. Most successful self-management are born with a robust and top-down decision making leadership, at least initially, which provides the scaffolding for the model to emerge then.
I think that most of the complexity in spreading these new organisational systems lies precisely because we're looking at them from opposing perspectives.
Intentional Design is therefore as much about creating the conditions for self-organised consistency to emerge than directly designing specific managerial systems.
Many leaders can easily recognise that the most effective areas of their organisations are areas where the four elements above act together. Project Teams are an example: they often live thanks to the hierarchy (with one manager sponsoring the initiative and providing the funding), yet they self-organise across organisational silos. They often design critical elements of their work (through project plans, for example), but their fundamental interactions often emerge from the "informal networking" among members.
2. My Latest Posts
Sergio Caredda, an HR Professional that believes in the human side of HR. Sergio Caredda currently works for OVS SpA as Chief People Officer and has substantial experience in HR across multiple functions, both in business and in consulting. He recently launched a page to collaboratively collect resources that, from an HR perspective, can support the people of Ukraine.
3. Reading Suggestions
But it’s Thursday! Yes, this week’s 5MSM is coming to you a day early, as tomorrow (Friday 15th April) is a public holiday in many parts of the world. Enjoy, and I’ll be back next Friday as usual. Gamifying compliance This is a speed camera lottery in Stockholm, Sweden. Drive under the speed limit, and your car registration is entered in a prize draw made up of fines paid by speeding drivers.
4. The (un) Intentional Organisation 😁
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