In a conversation with a friend yesterday I caught myself dismissing a recent organisational process as not really ‘working’.
One of the ways we often think about the success of structure and processes in organisations is through their persistence in time. In fact a definition of structure we use in the Holos Group is an enduring framework. Like many, I’ve spent time in different roles and projects designing and communicating new organisational structures and processes. Often they’re adopted for some time and then fall away, and it can be tempting to interpret their waning as evidence of poor design, a form of failure. Familiar phrases like ‘we tried that and it didn’t work’ come to mind. Of course working and not working are laden with implicit assumptions and expectations.
Perhaps some better questions are
– What purpose did it serve?
– Was it appropriate for the time?
– What did it enable and disable?
– How was it experienced by others?
Considering organisational structures and processes as temporary scaffolding for what’s needed in a particular context of time and place opens up a more generative inquiry, at least for me. They may still be well or poorly designed, but we need to ask different questions in order to find out.
The legacy of the solid machine keeps creeping back into our thinking about organising in an age better suited to the diaphanous. Now that is truly an unconscious metaphor and enduring framework that has persisted over time.
‘How do you think it’s going?’
I asked my friend in between sets at a late night Fitzroy gig years ago. He leaned over his guitar with a thoughtful look on his face.
‘Hmmm, it’s like we’re leaving a lot of space, but we’re not playing the space’.
It’s an expression that might sound odd in another context, but I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve been thinking recently about what I learned concerning creative work in groups and principles of organisation from my time studying and working as a jazz musician.
There’s much to be said – in fact much has been written – about musical metaphors for organisation. Rather than attempt to cram multiple ideas into this post, I want to focus on just one (or two).
Silence and Space.
It took me a long time to actually hear the space in (my) music. To realise that the notes only exist because of the silences in between them. But there are different kinds of ‘silences’. There are silences that are still busy, cluttered with concerns or crowded with uncertainty. Silences that full with questions – should I play-do-say something now or wait? Happenstance silences that are unconscious spaces in between activity.
Then there are beautiful silences. Silences and spaces that are full of awareness. Silences that are as consciously played as the audible notes. It’s the quality of listening to these silences – whether audience or performer – that shapes the music.
There’s also centred silence. Stillness that become a womb, nurturing action and movement for its appropriate time.
When we create models, we often ignore the silences, the spaces in between our scribbles.
When I read music on a page, my attention gets absorbed in the notes and I often forget the spaces, at least until I know the music so well that I can find them again.
When I work with organisations, most of the attention gets absorbed on the boxes and arrows, not the empty spaces in between. But the empty spaces give life to the boxes, become the silent context for the action to take place. If we look and listen close enough, the coloured dots and sounds themselves are made up of empty space, edgeless stretches between the contours of pixels and sound waves.
“Try to imagine the first musician. He was not playing for an audience, or a market, or working on his next recording, or touring with his show, or working on his image. He was playing out of need, out of his need for the music. The original musician was not looking for his image; he was using his voice to learn about the world. He knew the world to be liquid (i.e., not made up of discrete entities). Whatever noise was around him, Miles still played from that need, his sound coming from that silence, the vast liquid, edgeless silence that existed before the first musician played the first note. We need this silence, because that’s where the music is.”
I read this book about 14 years now and this passage has stayed with me since. I know what playing the space is like with music. I can’t always do it, but I’ve experienced and I see great musicians playing it effortlessly. I wonder what playing the space between the boxes and arrows looks like in other work, in organisations.
My friend and colleague Neil Houghton reminded me yesterday of John Cage’s revolutionary work, 4’33. I remembered a story from school, that Cage became so fascinated with the possibility of absolute silence that he visited an echoless sound absorbing studio at Harvard University. But he found that even here, he could hear two sounds, the low pulsing of his blood circulation and a high hum of his nervous system. It inspired me to revisit the context and inspiration in which Cage wrote it and I came across this line:
‘The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33’.
Cage discovered that absolute (living) silence is impossible illusion, a kind of Zeno’s paradox.
The emptiness is always full as much as the fullness always empty.
What would playing the spaces look like in your work and life?
*Quoted in Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner
I’m fascinated by how people make decisions when we come together, especially when there is no explicit process on how to decide. Our attention tends to become fixated on the content of what to include, what should happen, what evidence to consider for or against a course of action. Seldom do we pay attention to the patterns of the social interactions, the first steps that become group habits. Who suggests a course of action? Who shoots down the idea? Who asks questions of the group that frames the problem or bounds discussion? What governs who should say what and when?
Holacracy is an organisational operating system and approach to decision making that has recently received much attention, both high profile support at Zappos and mildly condescending reviews like this one from the Economist. Some commentators conflate it with being a flat structure, which displays a clear ignorance of the ideas and aspirations at the core of the system. I believe the cause of this interpretation is that the experiences many have with power and decision making in groups is confined to two types – what I’ll call vertical and horizontal.
Here I want to introduce a third way, a diagonal* in decision-making. It’s this diagonal that is absent from common organisational imagination. This is understandable as very few institutions value and embrace such processes.
This is where the authority for the decision (final say) clearly rests with an individual. This is the standard experience of traditional institutions. The military chain of command and later machine metaphors that have persisted into a democratic era.
It certainly has its advantages. It can be efficient and appropriate if the accountability for that decision, and consequences of failure rest unduly with the individual in question. I see this with entrepreneurs and small business owners whose livelihoods (and often mortgages) are tied to the consequences of such decisions. Of course they have the ‘final say’- employees and others can just walk away.
However while decisions can happen quickly, they can be brittle. Dominated by the perspective and worldview of one individual and often leave out important information that others hold. Overburdening individuals with increasingly complex decisions can create process bottlenecks. Whilst one person can decide quickly, the creative and cognitive juice required is taxing and deferring creative decisions to an individual creates burnout and overwhelm.
It often doesn’t feel good to be part of these systems. Imposed answers tend to get subtle (or overt) forms of resistance. Most people tend to want a share in creating something together, this stimulates engagement and ownership of a decision, invites us to become shareholders in rather than spectators of the venture. When we sense our own perspectives and ideas have little impact we tend to retreat from offering them over the long term.
So what’s an alternative? Unfortunately the most familiar experience of group process is unstructured discussion loosely aiming at ‘consensus’.
An advantage is that it can tease out previously unconsidered aspects of a topic, look at a problem from multiple angles and include diverse perspectives.
It can also ‘feel’ good. The latin root of consensus, consentio, means ‘feel together’, and there is a distinct harmonious quality to the ‘we all agree’ moment. Perhaps this is why many indigenous tribes and communities like the Quakers had similar practices. Many still argue that this form of group decision-making and distributing power is preferable to vertical approaches.
But knowing how to finally decide, when to stop discussing differences, integrate perspectives and converge around a conclusion is often unclear. Sometimes the impasse is broken by a reversal back to the vertical, as confident or socially dominant individuals reassert power and make the final call. Other times meetings drag on (in some cases literally for hours) as people are worn down by the discursive process. As proposals bounce around in loose discussion, attempts to shape outcomes that everyone is happy sometimes end in a decision with which literally no one is happy or feels a sense of ownership. In response politics begin outside the formal decision making process – people test out proposals and garner allies – so the actual formal discussion becomes more of a theatrical performance than a genuinely creative occasion.
Another horizontal alternative different to group consensus is the distributed ‘anyone can make decisions’ approach I sometimes see under the banner ‘it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission’. While this may work in small teams in regular communication, scaling without clear process will result in incoherence, lack of coordination and duplicate activity. Sometimes even energy being directed in opposing directions.
Essentially horizontal processes tend to be too slow and unwieldy or incoherent for organisations aspiring to be lean, responsive and strategically focussed.
How could decision making processes maximise the efficiency and accountability of vertical systems and the openness and ability of horizontal systems to include diverse perspectives and relevant information?
Balance the tensions of the centralised iron cage of bureaucracy and disparate chaos of adhocracy?
In his recent book Reinventing Organisations Frederic Laloux offered twelve examples of organisations that are doing things differently, have created their own (I would argue diagonal) processes. Holacracy One – the organisation behind Holacracy – is just one of the 12 featured (in fact before the name Holacracy, an earlier form of their process was simply called Ternary’s Way, in reference to founder Brian Robertson’s software company).
The key is holding a living (eco)system metaphor, integrating appropriate aspects of vertical hierarchy and horizontal networks to develop a sharper awareness of information (and tensions) across all aspects of an organisation, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to respond with a fast next step.
This is what I see great teams dong instinctively – finding a third way through the traps of the vertical and horizontal.
This is what I see emerging formalised systems like Holacracy attempting to scale.
What do you see?
*I first remember discussing this term with fellow futures friend Jose Ramos.
This is another step in the process of gamifying the phases of The Holos Group’s innovation journey, from spotting an opportunity to shipping a new product, service or feature to stewarding an entire ecosystem or movement. Creativity Prism a game designed by Rich Harmer and Adam Jorlen to facilitate the rapid generation of new viable ideas, was one step along this journey.
However, even when an organisation is consciously seeking to change or develop a new offering, so often the deep familiar patterns hold the system in place. As Kegan and Lahey make clear, we have an immunity to change, and some work is needed to uncover the unconscious reasons for keeping things the same.
That’s why we designed this new game, called Dark Matter (thanks to Hailey at Collabforge for collaborating on the name!)
Dark Matter and Dark Energy, although still a speculative phenomenon, are estimated to make up 96% of the universe. As one book title puts it, what we see and inhabit is only the 4% universe. It seems natural to question what percentage of organisations do most of us see and inhabit?
Dark matter and energy were first proposed to make sense of the mysterious gravitational pull exerted on visible matter. The standard model of physics predicted the universe should collapse in on itself, yet its measurements indicated inexplicable expansion at an accelerating rate. The metaphor serves when exploring what holds organisational systems together when they could fly apart, as much as what holds current systems in place when we say we want to change.
Our Dark Matter game uses pattern dynamics, a systems thinking language, and the futures triangle, a map of different temporal panoramas, to explore a theme of importance and uncover previously invisible aspects of a question. It helps unlock the dark matter surrounding the theme and its effect on the players and organisational systems at play.
Games bring people and ideas to life. A good game has a life of its own, a power and momentum that draws ideas and action out of us beyond the habitual. Games, like any social occasion, also have rules. How people relate to rules is often revealing. We can reject, conform, compete, bend, break, shape, or recreate them. Piaget recognised that as children we explore our relationship to rules through games, and that development is intimately bound to how we think about social rules. But perhaps the most important and valuable property of a game is that it is fun. Research increasingly recognises fun, or in psychological terms positive emotional valence, is the natural field for learning, creativity and development. Although this has been recognised and applied in children’s learning and development, we seldom craft these principles into the adult world of work. If learning is the pathway to more complex activity and performance, it would seem this is ripe for revision.
In a world of increasing complexity and volatility, the ability to bring groups together to learn, create and co-construct the new is critical. This is one of the reasons why we are so passionate about designing games that bring futures and strategy to life. The other is because, well, they are fun.
Everyday at precisely 3pm I receive a google alert that another coworking space has opened in some new corner of the world. From Boston to Beirut to Bali, with each additional space and news item, the word ‘coworking’ become a little less foreign to the public at large.
What’s driving this remarkable growth?
The technological story is straight forward. Ubiquitous wifi, cheap mobile devices, software’s great migration from the server to the cloud. All this adds up to a world where many people can work from anywhere, at least technically. No longer bound to the phone and computer on the desk, or the files on the server (let alone the paper in the filing cabinet), for many, work has become a case of something one does rather than somewhere one goes. Then there is the story of outsourcing and downsizing, the victory of the temporary contract and short term project over the increasingly elusive general employment agreement. Finally there are the work-life aspirations of the millennials – over half of which claim to be planning to work as freelancers or start their own businesses. The choices here appear different to the past, privileging freedom of mobility over fixed security. Working anywhere, anytime on projects of passion. From push to pull, this is the world the coworker inhabits and, arguably, the world of work that will become more and more widespread.
But what does this mean for public culture?
Use of public space has changed over the past decade. Answering phone calls and emails are routinely public affairs – walking down the street, jostling on public transport, even public toilets see people squinting at smart phone screens. Cafes have become a second office for many, from the caffeinated-email-sprint pit stop to the longer form composition hunched in some corner or couch (I happen to be one of them right now).
It is actually surprising how little we discuss the cultural implications of bringing private work into public places.
But the counter-insurgence to social life being colonised by work, is work life becoming more social. Mid-week work meetings are routinely booked in busy CBD cafes. The rows of cubicles, low ceilings and grey carpets that formed the backdrop of twentieth century office life are being opened to the multi-niche ecosystems of Activity Based Working. Standardised palettes are giving way to diverse spaces, colours and shapes designed for different work styles and tasks. Finally a host of new ‘enterprise social’ tools aim to foster conversational digital interactions within organisations. The boundaries between work and social life continue to blur.
‘Nomadism becomes a trait of the liquid modern’ observed social theorist Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Modernity for Bauman has not been a positive thing, full of ambivalence and uncertainty as defined social structures and role identities become fluid – expressions of individual choice rather than collective solidarity. But nomadic cultures have their own cosmologies, constellations of rituals and beliefs that facilitate a sense of place amid a world of constant change. Historically they also found security in the interdependence of the tribe.
Lone nomads didn’t last very long.
My own research interests are in how people learn to thrive within this state of flux as much as how they might ache. What kinds of narratives about work, life and community help individuals navigate the choppy rapids of the network society? What subtle skills do savants exercise to stay afloat? Where are the new tribes that enable work-life nomads to thrive?
This shift from solid noun to liquid verb permeates other areas of life too. Like work, in this world community becomes less something to which you belong and more something you actively create. Institutions increasingly seek community ‘managers’, ‘catalysts’ and ‘curators’. Community once formed around and outside of work, an unintentional byproduct of human relations. We now see businesses whose commercial strategy depends on building a sense of community (and measuring its properties and dimensions with increasing sophistication). Peer to peer platforms face the chicken and egg dilemma of requiring users to generate value and requiring value to attract users. The only way around this is to articulate a vision and offer experiences that appeal to early adopters – cohorts that will engage with vision and persist with clunky ‘beta’ phases over the need for clearly realised value exchange.
Participating in pioneering the new can be inspiring and the experimental excitement of early days is enough of an attractor for some. The coworking movement started out with a vision of how the experience of work could be different. An invitation to reject both the perceived dysfunctional culture and politics of corporate life and the isolation of the independent contractor working from home . But like many early adopter community movements, what initially feels like a series of bold experiments soon becomes enfolded into the everyday majority. Mainstream billboards now promote these early experiments – ‘I can work from anywhere’ or ‘Corporate ladder? I’ll make my own way thanks.’
So what happens to the coworking movement when many of its distinct properties and practices become just…work?
There are several possible scenarios that have been outlined for the future of coworking.
One possibility is that coworking’s corporate cousin – Activity Based Work – becomes the normalised template for large organisations. The knowledge and experience of successful coworking spaces and communities can offer valuable advice and lessons learned in approaching this transition. An interesting development is the provision of coworking services not only to employees of the company but to customers and potentially other stakeholders. The National Australia Bank is experimenting with a version of this through The Village.
Another is that coworking-learning spaces become a recognised publicly funded institution – the public libraries of the 21st century. That the public funds and infrastructure currently locked up in storing books are (partly) spent on coworking offerings. There are already movements in this direction with The Edge in Brisbane and the Alexandria Coworking Network. The city of Oakland’s Public Library, for example, was recently referred to as Oakland’s original coworking space.
Third is that a dominant primary operator emerges – a Starbucks like franchise rising out of the current cluster of independent providers. This raises many challenges for the practice of community building and potentially foreshadows a less intimate experience of coworking. We Work already have 19 spaces across the USA and London and the multinational Regus, although offering serviced offices since the 1980s has more recently begun using the word coworking to describe its offering.
Fourth is that a system offering that enables single space independent operators to be linked together and take advantage of scale, whilst remaining autonomous. A federated approach that allows members of one space to access services from other spaces. The perfect back office and community facing portal is one of the holy grails of the coworking industry and a lot of work is happening in this space. Hub Australia has just released its version of this in Mesh
Finally there is the collapse scenario. The massive growth in coworking spaces over past years may take the turn of the dotcom bubble – especially if free access to collaborative workspaces and communities become publicly or privately systematised. Beyond the public library possibility, offerings like seats2meet are experimenting with ‘free’, or at least non monetary forms of exchange with such a possibility.
These scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive, in fact glimmers of all of them are currently happening. Whatever the future of the ‘co’ in coworking turns out to be, how coworking communities find meaning in their identity as distinct from just working is an open question I will be holding over the coming years.
John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davidson write in the Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion
“The fact that richer knowledge flows and even elements of creation spaces—which are characteristic of the third wave—are now becoming visible on the edge demonstrates the overlapping, rather than sequential, nature of how the Big Shift is unfolding…innovations to institutional architectures (such as the ability to foster and participate in creation spaces where performance accelerates as more participants join). Over time, these innovations will enable firms to develop and adopt new ways of creating and capturing wealth in the digital era.”
One of the most exciting parts of my work and study is understanding how we can better connect these emerging creation spaces across boundaries of shared passion and interest (rather than geography, or rather – we need new mental models of geographies).
The wiki-like digital platforms that have been evolving over the past decade as part of the cloud computing revolution hold the promise of scaling new forms of collaborative activity with wikipedia still standing as the best known example of this. One of the challenges I see in this is the anthropological concept of Dunbar’s number – that human beings struggle to maintain more than about 150 stable social relationships at one time. That somewhere around this number, we exhaust our mental and emotional bandwidth to hold that number of faces, names and stories in a way that’s meaningful. Can we evolve systems and capacities beyond this historical upper limit?
I have a feeling that the entrepreneurs currently building these spaces and communities are laying down the infrastructure that will carry the next wave of value creation in the 21st century – what the railroad tycoons did in 19th century and digital entrepreneurs have done over past decades.
As a species, I see us needing to learn how to connect and scale the collaborative potential of these digital-physical spaces of shared passion that sit outside or across currently recognised institutions. The challenge is doing it in a way that doesn’t dilute or corrode the trust built up by the thick bonds of smaller communities of shared experience.
So if the term hasn’t officially been coined yet – keep your eye on E2E – edge to edge communities*.
Part of my PhD data collection next year will explore these spaces in the context of more recent post-industrial economies and societies across Asia (and hopefully beyond).
I’m certainly looking forward to the adventure of trying to do this :)
Recently I’ve been seeing rhythms as fractal sets across my biology, relationships, work and the planet as a whole.
Thank you to Venita Ramirez for putting me on to this Greenpeace video that beautifully demonstrates such a link between the rhythm of the breath and the natural systems of the planet.