attractive prisons

Today we hear a lot about models like holacracy and teal organizations that are focused on changing how we work together in organizations.

Teal organization: A new kind of organization designed to enable “whole” individuals (not narrow professional selves) to self-organize and self-manage to achieve an organic organizational purpose (determined not through hierarchical planning but incrementally, responsively, and from the bottom up).

Holacracy: The most widely adopted system of self-management, developed in 2007 by Brian Robertson. Authority and decision making are distributed among fluid “circles” (defined below) throughout the organization, and governance is spelled out in a complex constitution.

Podularity: A system of self-management in which each basic unit, or “pod,” is treated as a microcosm of the whole business and acts on its behalf. Podularity has its roots in agile (defined below).

Agile: A theory of management originating in software development. In an agile system of work, cross-functional, self-managed teams solve complex problems iteratively and adaptively—when possible, face-to-face—with rapid and flexible responses to changing customer needs. —Harvard Business Review 2016-07

Looking at these different approaches reminds me of the blind men and the elephant, each singularly focused on one aspect of a complex phenomenon. In looking at these approaches over the years, and observing how organizations work and do not work, there is a root issue that needs to be addressed: reorganization. Reorganization has been around for years, if not millennia.

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organising, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.” –Charlton Ogburn: Merrill’s Marauders (Harper’s Magazine – 1957)

Reorganization has to be part of an organization, not something done to it. A principle of ‘temporary, negotiated hierarchies‘ should inform the organization of work if it is to enable people to address complex problems and work in creative ways. Hierarchies are needed to get work done. Someone has to be in charge, but not permanently, because the situation changes. Someone else may be better to get the next piece of work done.

To enable this type of restructuring, power has to be distributed. Individuals need to have the flexibility to leave their work group and to select the next temporary boss. Management’s job is to make the system work and let contributors get the work done, on their own terms. This is how freelancers work. They are all autonomous but give up some of that autonomy when they work with others. But they do not give it up forever. This organizational paradox is one of the greatest challenges for organizations adapting to a network economy where change on the outside is faster than on the inside.

“We think of organizations as a way to coordinate work and get things done, which is true enough. But at the same time, every organization is a bundle of contradictions and conflicts.

For example, an organization must have a way to attract and retain members, or it will cease to exist. At the same time it must constrain people’s behavior, or it won’t be able to get anything done. This means any organization has the oxymoronic goal of being an attractive prison.” —Dave Gray

We are shifting to a network society. Networks enable organizations to deal with complexity by empowering people to connect with whom they need to, without permission. For example, enterprise social network platforms epitomize this, usually letting anyone connect to another colleague, and where the default permission to get access to information is open.

Networks are in a state of perpetual Beta. They can continuously change shape, size, and composition, without formal permission. All of our organizational models were designed as solutions to some communications problem. The current organizational tyranny was a response to a linear, print-based world. These organizations are artifacts of a time when information was scarce and hard to share, and when connections with others were difficult to make and required command and control. The network era, with digital electric communications, changes this. Organizations today should be designed more like the internet (small pieces, loosely joined) and less like attractive prisons.


organizing for the network era

One Response to “attractive prisons”

  1. Michel Bundock

    a lot of things are “attractive prisons”: family, couple, friendship, sport team, benevolat… In Every relation or group we have constraint, rules, limits.

    Our organization had implement Holacracy and Teal principles since 1 1/2 year.
    Yes there’s constraint. But there’s so much freedom, creativity, mindfullness, agility…
    these approach had the same effect of removing the shade of people.
    I believe and I see it every day: people with powershift are so better and smiling!
    It’s not a point of view, it’s facts every day.


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