A TEACUP FOR THE MECHANIC: Liberating Organisational Imageries

by M. A.

First published here.

This essay is adapted from a commissioned study looking at a number of organisational and governance models available for not-for-profits, as part of the development process and institutional building of Cimatheque – Alternative Film Centre, a multi purpose space dedicated to celebrating film and supporting independent filmmakers in Egypt.

Picture the sea (or take to it). If this proves to be difficult, then picture this: millions of Muslim pilgrims from all around the world flock to the same spot, at the same hour every year, to start a sequence of procession that lasts for days in perfect synchronicity, without any form of leadership or authority. The behavior of any single pilgrim is informed only by that of her neighbor, and not by a leading figure. What keeps everyone together is a social code: the sequence has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Everyone knows they need to get from one procession to the next. Everyone, and no one, make sure it happens. This is order from chaos.

We, and our organisations, exist in a world of constant evolutionary activity. Why is change so unnatural in human organisations? There is a state of ‘unboundedness’ that accompanies moments of change; we consider that state to be chaotic.[1] We resist it and naturally aspire for stability, waiting for the unsettled particles to rest at the bottom of our teacup, in a recognisable, horizontal line. Nature is neither stable nor linear. It is baffling how humanity came to imagine sudden change as something that can only happen outside of normal order. Why is it so discomforting for us to experience our familiar decision-making processes being challenged by chaos or seeming disorder?

There are two paths out of chaos: collective vision and tyranny, the latter being the easy way to reach temporary stability, knowledge reference as a snapshot of chaos, bound by time and space. Many systems opt for this seemingly obvious way to order, however chaotic systems, as we understand them, are not easy environments. The payoff of chaos is collective vision, an institution of individuals all singing from the same sheet of music. In turn, that means all must have a meaningful voice in the development of mission, vision, values and strategic directions: true organisational openness. Without buy-in, there will be cacophony in execution and implementation.

New not-for-profit organisations typically aspire to being adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning and intelligent; characteristics which, in and of themselves, are more akin to living systems.[2] There are many ways of thinking and re-thinking organisational models that exist out there in the not-for-profit realm. This diverse imagery, this capacity to imagine, could be particularly beneficial for organisations interested in new technologies and approaches to management, and to those committed to alternative ideological frameworks. The choice of an organisational or governance framework should be informed by an understanding of the delicate configuration of personalities, cultures, and environmental pressures that make up an organisation.

At the heart of the most dominant organisational mindsets lies a set of prescriptions and presumptions: if a Board and CEO follow a certain ‘recipe,’ said Board and CEO will be effective. These prescriptions take root in traditional models of management, such as the Policy Governance Model (The Carver Model, with its clear segregation between the duties of the Board and those of the CEO and staff, between the political and the operational levels of organisation), and, over the years, its well-established presumptions have been subject to criticism. Linguistically, Policy Governance relies on a terminology and imagery largely borrowed from classic entrepreneurial management theory, constraining it to a business mindset that may not fit, for example, charitable, cultural, or advocacy not-for-profit groups. Marked by a zealous overuse of contested notions, such as ‘productivity’ and ‘accountability,’ the model’s indicative measures of effectiveness and success are output measures (for instance, are we doing more this year than the year before?) thus discarding input measures (what kind of work do we do?) or process measures (are we working together in a way that best reflects our values?). Needless to say, the much-celebrated equitable and diverse nature of this model faces very little scrutiny.

Traditional, top-down models of governance and management follow the prevailing 17th century metaphor of the organisation as a machine, a notion that hails from a time when we started envisioning our cosmos as a great clock. Inside a machine, each part has its own unique function. Parts cannot replace one another, but, paradoxically, they can be replaced when dysfunctional or corrupt using descriptive technical specifications. Like a machine, an organisation needs a purpose (after all, who needs a purposeless machine?) and skilled operators. It has been argued that it is time to come up with an alternative metaphor. Machine-like organisations have been demonstrating machine-like-characteristics including failure to adapt, and vulnerability to external elements and changes in its environment.

Self-organising systems, for instance, propose a process of developing order out of interaction on a local level between components of initially disordered systems.[3] Theorists argue that self-organising systems have what all leaders crave: the capacity to respond continuously to change. The process is spontaneous – it is not directed by any agent; however, the rules that govern the system may be triggered by random fluctuation through any singular agent and are then amplified by positive feedback. These systems find their metaphor in the flocking behavior of animals and birds, structural creation by social insects like ants and bees, and even the emergence of life itself from self-organising chemical systems.

It is said that for self-organising to occur, a self needs to be identified. Identification is at the heart of any organisation’s process of sense- making. An identity for an organisation may include its mission, vision, and values, but it doesn’t stop there. An identity is interpretive; it is how we understand our history, how we perceive the present, and how we envision our future. It is what we want to believe is true, and what our actions show to be true.

A key characteristic of healthy self-organised groups is their ability to process information and respond to it. Since initiative is de-centralised and pushed from the core to the local, information too could be processed on that level. Just as termites need to bump into one another in order to assess their neighbors’ intentions, their direction, and their labor, workers in organisations need to have access to each other and to all information in the organisation, even information we may find irrelevant. This helps initiative thrive in unexpected regions. It is this ability of processing information that allows an organisation to be responsive, and changeable.

Imagining that we (as organisms, organisations, particles, trends, etc.) are suspended in motion in a common medium, which is not the same as saying that we occupy an artificial culture (in the laboratory sense of the word), all occupants of this medium are potential stem cells: cells that can divide and differentiate into diverse specialised cell types and can self-renew to produce more stem cells. We move at will, we collide, merge, grow, disband, and float away again. All partners, audiences, staff members, etc. that occupy the same medium and carry the same code (the same DNA) are stem cells to enhance existing cells or start new ones.

The three regions of identity, information, and networks are constantly set in circular motion at self-organisations. It is tricky to pin down which region stimulates the other. Sometimes information could lead to new understandings of identity, and, often, new networks bring about new information. As such, recognising organisational problems and addressing issues should happen at these three subterranean levels, rather than on the exterior level of adjusting regulations or developing practices.

The aforementioned metaphor of cells occupying a common medium is possibly one of the least studied and written-on organisational models. It has evolved from network organisation, and it borrows its imagery from that of healthy, non-cancerous, human cells, following their behavioural patterns. Healthy organisations, like healthy non-cancerous cells, grow, replicate, communicate with one another, and eventually die. Rigid, unhealthy organisations behave more like cancerous cells. They demonstrate unbridled growth, they proliferate, lose ability to communicate with other cells, and they cannot die. Status quo organisations suffer from top-down control over decision-making, and eventually lose their ability to adapt or respond to circumstantial shifts.[4]

Under the Cellular model, organisations are formed of self-managing, specialised, and particular cells, which constantly form and disband. The cells could operate independently and interdependently, communicating and interacting with one another, forming a potent organisational model. The system values emergence and offers a great deal of responsiveness to changes in the environment. It champions self-organisation and constant proactive reconfiguration. Key issues are recognised at the core or at regional cells.

Relatively new and prone to scrutiny and critique, with its strong, innovative undertone, making it harder to embrace by more classic-minded thinkers, this model, this Galilean mental shift, is marked by a high level of inclusivity and participation, changeability and capacity to respond to emergent issues, an ability to disband/reconfigure its own cells, the power-sharing character of its decision-making process, and the fact that its strategic planning is driven by issues that arise both from the core cell and all local cells – all bring it closer to the needs and wishes of a larger multitude of constituencies.

The challenge remains to create that profound code, which is shared and carried out by all cells in order for them to work towards the same common purpose. Additionally, cells are bound by the extent of its medium: we need a medium we could encounter one another within. That medium expands with the spreading of the code, and the creation of more common grounds and mediums of collaboration. Organisations should begin with developing a coherent sense of identity – a common sense of purpose, shared values, stories and myths that keep an organisation going; a constantly reworked process of sense-making. We should thrive to find clarity in the chaos. It is this clarity that frees individuals to make their own unique contributions to the organisation.

[1] Pat Crowford. Public Participation: Finding Knowledge and Clarity in Chaos. The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal. Vol. 16. (2011). Available online.

[2] Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. The Irresistible Future of Organizing. July/August 1996. Available online.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Patricia Bradshaw & Bryan Hayday. “Non-profit Governance Models: Problems and ProspectsThe Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, Vol. 12. (2007). Available online.



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