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). Continue reading

Values and Norms: insights from Norbert Elias (Part 2)

In my first blog in this series, I introduced a research narrative from “Max” about conflicts that were arising as three teams came together in a newly merged organisation.  These arose as the values and norms of those involved were being renegotiated in their interactions with each other.  I introduced some ideas from Norbert Elias (1996) as a way of making sense of what might be happening in the narrative.

Max’s narrative also highlights another point made by Elias about norms and the way they are portrayed by some writers and how they conceptualise norms in a highly idealised manner, allowing the reader to see only those functions which they wish them to have and block the perceptions of those functions that they do not wish to perceive. So for example, the norm in Max’s narrative regarding not exposing disagreements in meetings, whilst serving some desirable functions, at the same time may block the potential to explore different perspectives in a way which could lead to something novel and creative to emerge. (Noting this too is not a panacea – as any norm suggesting conflict of this kind is “a good thing” which can only lead to positive outcomes is to misunderstand what Elias is pointing to. Something new and different does not always mean it will be better, and of course the judgement on this will vary from differing perspectives of those involved.) Thus any norm will have within it the same paradoxical features to which Elias is pointing – so a shift to a norm that encourages open contradiction and conflict in meetings as a generalised rule could at the same time block some of the benefits arising from failing to disagree, such as the ability to maintain a sense of civilised order and conduct in a way that enables groups to try to listen to each other. Continue reading

Values and Norms – insights from Norbert Elias (Part 1)

I was recently reviewing a research narrative in which Max, the researcher, was describing what was happening in a health care organisation that was undergoing an organisational merger. Max had responsibility for leading a programme of work aimed at improving the care of patients with diabetes. This involved redesigning their treatment pathway to improve their disease management and reduce what were regarded by the organisation’s management as unnecessary and expensive admissions to hospital, which it thought could be better managed in the community. This work required him to bring together clinicians and managers from three former organisations, one of which he had worked for prior to the merger. His research interest is in exploring the concept of “transformation” and the narrative describes a series of meetings he is having with staff about the work. These meetings are proving difficult, because it is clear from what is being said that the groups from the three organisations have strong “we” identities arising from their former organisations and are all involved in stigmatising gossip based on their prejudices about each other. Max finds himself defending his former organisation when this is being criticised and also feels surprised and uncomfortable when it begins to appear as though the perceived source of the problem- the hospital- may not be the only cause of the problem – as he and his colleagues had formally perceived.  He describes vividly the detail of a very difficult meeting in which one of the influential Doctors loses their temper and refuses to co-operate with colleagues from one of the other former organisations on the grounds that what is being proposed could compromise patient care. Max describes the frustration and anxiety this raises for him and others – including a discussion with his manager Carl, in which he is told that “failure is not an option”. Continue reading