Facilitating Emergence

Letting things Happen without Letting Go

The focus of organisational change interventions moves away from ‘planning change’ and onto ‘facilitating emergence’. If we are looking to help a new paradigm emerge we need a new way to think about the role of the change agent—whether external consultant or internal OD specialist. We need a new metaphor” (Richard Seel)

In the years of practicing and teaching organisation development I have come to accept that very few cases in my consulting practice can serve as textbook examples of an OD process – mostly things happen in a way that is far from the book and far from what would be classically considered best practice. While this used to annoy me, I am actually starting to appreciate it.

Organisation Development is defined as a planned process of systemic change. In contrast to this, most change in organisations occurs as an emergent pattern resulting from complex interactions between actors. In many cases, these same actors (along with their OD consultants) get frustrated because the emergent change they experience does not reflect the change they designed. The answer to this challenge that I find most helpful is: Don’t fight emergence, the system has a pretty good idea, what it’s doing! But-And-Also: Don’t blindly trust it as something wonderful, just because it’s organic. Every emergent process can do with a little bit of love and care. This is the stance of facilitating emergence.

Emergence Defined

The concept of emergence was first coined by the English Philosopher George Henry Lewes almost 150 years ago. It describes properties of a system that cannot be predicted from the properties of its parts (thus are not purely additive or „resultant“). Examples of this are the interplay of ants creating an ant colony, the interplay of brain-cells creating consciousness or the interplay of engaged people and initiatives creating a social movement. In a beautifully simple way, emergence can be defined as “order arising out of chaos” (Holman, 2010, p. 18). This dynamic is not a one-way affair: The patterns that emerge in the larger system feed back down to influence the interactions and relationships on its parts. In complex adaptive systems (such as organisations) this feedback loop is a constant process. 

Quite a bit has been said about both extreme points of the emergence-design-continuum: the highly controlled pure design as well as the hands off emergence paradigm have been well described and advocated for, both in management and economic theory. Throughout the past decades, management literature has explored opening up the design side to let in some fresh air. First inspired by the humanistic ethics-effectiveness arguments, more recently lured by the fascinating accounts of complex adaptive systems and self-organisation, management and consulting practitioners have continuously loosened the rigid design and control paradigm to explore the semi-open space: participatory management, incremental strategy, responsive organisational structures and routines are just a few examples.

In most of these developments the design side has remained the practical reference point and openness is defined by its distance from the “100% control” end of the continuum. Emergence in contrast shines up as an archetype, sometimes glorified as a promised land sometimes condemned or feared as anarchic chaos or neoliberal Darwinism. And indeed, emergence does not always deliver the best results: A garden grows over. Markets fail. The strong eat the weak. The Tragedy of the Commons, the Tyranny of Structurelessnes and The Iron Law of Oligarchy are are just a few of the challenges of unregulated social systems that call for answers. Tried and tested semi-emergent approaches are hard to come by as the space a little left center remains an uncomfortable spot.

If we accept that emergence is happening at all times and that it is equally promising and problematic, we need to explore ways to facilitate healthy emergence. I refer to these approaches as “3/4 openness”, pointing to the fact that their main emphasis is on letting things emerge while a small part is about design and guidance.

States of Emergent Change

Social Change theory makes a distinction between emergent, projectable and transformative change. Emergent change denotes the continuous developments that result from a system’s internal dynamics, either in reaction to an outside stimulus or driven by its inner forces. Projectable change in contrast is effected by an intentional process based on a comparison of actual and desired states. It can be compared to a problem solving process reforming individual subsystems. In the organizational learning theory projectable change is associated with “single loop learning”.  Finally, transformative change is more like a revolution – an effort to change the game entirely, often as a response to severe crisis. This revolution first and foremost requires unlearning. In the organisational learning jargon this condition is called “double loop learning”.

Let us challenge the notion that these three types form a continuum in which emergent change is small and gradual and requires a hands off approach from leaders and consultants while transformative change requires powerful interventions. Let us explore the possibility that facilitating emergent change can in fact result in system transformations that are not only profound but also holistic and sustainable.

Emergent Change is not only continuous but also cumulative. Weick described it as “the realization of a new pattern of organizing in the absence of explicit a priori intentions”[1]. Reeler[2] differentiates less conscious and more conscious types of emergent change. The less conscious type can be found in early formation stages of a system and within shifting and uncertain environments. It is characterized by unformed and unclear identities, relationships, structures or leadership. Self-organisation and self-regulation are very weak under this condition. More conscious emergent change in turn occurs when identity, relationships, structures and (shared) leadership are more established. This is facilitated by more stable and less contradictory environments. It can be described as a „healthy self-regulation“.

Image: Reeler (2007)

Supporting an organisation to move from a less to a more conscious state of emergent change is a key challenge for self organisation development.

Another key challenge is keeping the ground soft: if we assume that emergence has a value, we need to figure out how we can fight path dependence in social systems.

[1] (as cited in Beer & Nohria, 2000, p. 226).

[2] A Theory of Social Change, Doug Reeler (2007)

Evolutionary Strategy

From Predict & Control to Sense & Respond

Everything will unfold with more grace if we stop trying to control and instead choose to simply sense and respond. (Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organisations)


Strategy Work needs to strike a delicate balance: It needs to navigate between the dangers of merely drifting with the environment and of overplanning in a delusion of control. The concept of “Sense and Respond”, last re-introduced to the Organisation Development discourse by Frederic Laloux, describes a mode of development between the two. It is neither fully comprehensive nor free of contradictions but it sure has the ring of a timely title for a new era.

Peripheral Vision 

In the Sense & Respond Mode we are seeking resonance to internal and external dynamics that are just being born. We are grasping a future, which exists only as a seed or fragile sprout in the here and now. This kind of sensing into the world is all but trivial: we tend to deselect anything that is new and unfitting. Alternatively, we interpret it though the filters of our perception to conform to our mental models. When I read the paper, chances are that I focus on and remember those things that fit my world view. Whatever is unfitting will evade my attention and get drowned out. In strategic processes “Weak Signals” that flicker as messengers of big developments in the noise of the world, equally fall prey to these filters of perception. We have to actively seek them out – particularly at the edges of our field of vision. 

We can support this search by cultivating our networks as dispersed sensing surfaces – a strengthening of the organisation’s “peripheral vision”. In order to do a good job at this, our network needs to be informed what kind of signals we are interested in. Cognitive filters can be countered by systematic contrasting of perspectives from different people. Another option is to meet the signals with open intuition – as Otto Scharmer describes in his Presencing approach.  

The Sensing does not only relate to signals from the outside world but equally to the internal environment, to the awareness for impulses and developments within the organisation.  Where are new ideas and directions of development coming about? Where are meaningful insights and discoveries being made? What are potentials for focussing attention (oh most precious resource of our time)? The ability to sense and respond to these dynamics requires a certain amount of “Jazz competence”. Listening, comping (the musical short for respectful harmonic accompaniment of a soloist), and setting impulses – all make for a fruitful emergent development and are far from given. Laloux’s concept of the evolutionary purpose describes how on the grounds of such mindful interaction the Bigger Picture of the strategic lines emerges in a collaborative process. Structurally it requires the permission, for people in any position to take strategic decisions on the ground. Planning and implementation are not distinct processes here, but interwoven. Sensemaking happens in motion.  

Just as with the Open Space approach I am wondering: is that still strategic? And if not, is that bad? Hasn’t the discovery of mindfulness opened a post-strategic era that is quite all right to live in? 

When an organisation asks me to consult them in a strategy process, my first question back to them is, why they believe they need a strategy in the first place. Often this question effects a mix of a raised eyebrow and a shrugged shoulder. You simply need a strategy, period. Oh yeah? If strategy is indeed only a “pattern in the stream of decisions”, there is no need to pre-conceptualize anything – it will come about by itself. The eyebrow stays raised and I feel that this explanation does not satisfy me either. I don’t just want to discover the world and drift with it – I want to shape it. The bigger picture needs a canvas. So, some ingredient is still missing. Could we go a bit evolutionary and a bit classic? What may minimal navigation and compass functions look like in a Sense & Respond mode? 

Navigation by Probing 

Let us consider the context. Contexts can espouse varying degrees of perceivable order, all of which require different modes of navigation. A helpful map in this respect is the Cynefin Framework, which describes four kinds of order in systems: simple systems (linear logic, example: a toaster), complicated systems (multi-dimensional order, example: a computer), complex systems (dynamic, multi-layered orders, example: a forest) and chaotic systems (non-decodable orders that don’t allow for predictions, example… uh, a birthday party with 9 year old boys). 

Source: Snowden & Boone, Harvard Business Review, Nov 2007

While complex environments currently seem to be the biggest fascination, a constant conjuring of the VUCA world will not help the fact that life and inparticular social systems have always been dynamic and complex. The ingredients volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity make for a fine description of the world as it is, with or without its ongoing condensation and acceleration. They mark the difference between the (simplified static) map and the (complex dynamic) terrain. In this respect we are rather dealing with the end of a long-lasting delusion of control than with a fundamentally new environment.

The Cynefin Framework is a useful tool to target your strategic approach. As Snowden & Boone point out, complex environments require a strategy approach that replaces the classic analytical „Sense-Analyse-Respond“ sequence with an experimental mode of feeling your way forward (“Probe-Sense-Respond“). In chaotic contexts robust action with continuous observation of feedback loops is in place („Act-Sense-Respond“). This fits with the insight, that complex environments require an equally complex internal structuring but at the same time they require very simple action programmes. 

I read this, I am delighted and wonder what it means. What exactly are we doing at our next strategy retreat? And will there be a plan in the end or not? 

The Art of Three Quarter Openness

To move forward here, it is worth taking a look at strategy models that combine great openness with minimal strategic anchoring. They are not abundant but up and coming (a not so weak signal). 

An interesting approach in this respect is the Opportunity Driven Development model, inspired by Peter Skat-Rördam. It focuses on the question, which developments need to happen so that the organisation can identify and grasp opportunities within its environment related to a specific strategic intent. The grand lines of development therefore are not about the world out there but about internal development of the organisation. Strategy work thus becomes Organisation Development Work, effecting a constant improvement of the functions of Sensing and Responding. 

The Opportunity Driven Strategy Model

Strategy work has long been split between the approaches of market or resource orientation: Do we want to tune in to the dynamics of the field, find gaps and beat the competition or do we want to focus on our strengths and use our core competences to create a unique offer?

Both approaches are promising and useful in complex environments: stay alert to what’s happening out there! And: concentrate on what you do best! The opportunity driven development approach opens the “Either-Or” up to encompass both.

The roof of the model is built by the Strategic Intent, a very down to earth version of the Mission statement answering to the question “How do we want to change our world in the intermediate future?”. The Strategic Intent functions as a compass.

The dynamic underground of the Model is made up of Opportunities – events that are sure to come but hard to predict: partnership offers, funding lines, turns in a discourse that support political lines of argument. 

The connection between the strategic intent and the opportunities are organizational challenges: intermediate “Construction Sites” within the organization that tackle development needs in order capture opportunities more successfully and sustainably. The construction sites can relate to various aspects: building speedy decision routines or effective resource mobilization, designing contact networks, building topical competences or establishing new impact models. A manageable number of development fields (3-5) are spelled out in annual planning routines and regularly evaluated for progress. 

When I recently presented this model to an international NGO, the director was visibly relieved, saying: “great, we have been working like this all along and we always thought it was kind of unprofessional. Now the child has a name!”. This reaction is not unusual and at least half of the relief goes out to justifying the Ad-Hoc-ism. Many organisations work on a dual operating system: Formally, a spotless strategic plan with long-term objectives, routemaps and milestones is worked out. Factually, this plan disappears in the drawers after a short time and makes way for an opportunity driven practice that could be coined “intuitively agile”. 

Strategic continuity can be at risk here as the connection between vision and pragmatic daily operations is quickly getting out of sight. Opportunity orientation is especially risky for less institutionalised actors as they are in danger of becoming a ball in the waves of environmental dynamics (“mission drift” is the organizational version of identity diffusion). Agility needs a strong frame.

The opportunity driven model does not dissolve this risk but offers stabilisation in form of the strategic intent and the mediating layer of construction sites. We can neither predict nor control opportunities, they open and close up like windows in the fog. Nevertheless, we can get better at recognizing and taking specific chances. We don’t have a map of the terrain ahead, but we can equip our ship to use currents and winds to get to the shores we are heading for. The focus of this approach is both, internal and external.

Another Three Quarters Open approach is the Guided Evolution Strategy Model proposed by Lechner & Bär. In a continuous experimentation mode, strategic initiatives are launched and selectively amplified or damped. Development impulses are guided through three distinct phases: „Variation“ (generating new ideas), „Selection“ (filtering out promising ideas) and „Retention“ (anchoring successful approaches by resource allocation or dampening of non successful approaches). As in Laloux’s model of Evolutionary Purpose, impulses can originate anywhere in the organisation. Selection and steering however are classically designed as a strategic management function. 

The question remains which structural preconditions Evolutionary Straetgy effects in organisations? What exactly are those dynamic capabilities that allow an organisation, to change its strategic answers, maybe even its resource base and its business model during operation? Three things seem important: 

  • Firstly, a high degree of real time communication is required, direct interaction with short reaction- and feedback times (this does not always have to be a face to face meeting, it can be mediated intelligently). Jazz-improvisation without immediacy does not really work. 
  • Secondly, evolutionary strategies require organisational cultures that cherish experimentation (including failures). Full hearted action must be treated as equally valuable as sensitive deliberation. Space for playful freedom, openness to failure, fluid changes of leadership and followership – that too is an art. 
  • Thirdly, we need structures that can be reconfigured swiftly. Thanks to the network and agility discourse we do have a number of promising models at hand for this: reaching from elastic frames (“Semi Structures”), Dynamic Roleboards, up to modular Organisations following the Lego Modell.

And more buzz words… as far as I can see, now the real work starts. It is quite possible that there are no ready-made answers and models but that the suitable strategic approach needs to be developed for each organisation individually. As it seems to me: the biggest challenge of the Sense and Respond Mode is neither process related nor structural. It has to do with a concept developmental psychologists call “Urvertrauen”, a basic deep seated trust, both, in the world and ourselves. 

Preliminary Order

The Sweet Perils of Agile Design

Continuous Construction

I am sitting on my porch in our cooperative micro-village, an hour north of Berlin on the Oder river, trying to keep the July morning sun out of my computer screen and the bugs out of my coffee. The sprouting weeds in the garden remind me of how quickly emergence can get messy. The peach trees, drastically trimmed in the fall and now back with focused strength, remind me, how cutting back can facilitate growth within a system. The bugs continue to annoy me. When I turn to the left I look onto my neighbor Jörg’s place. It looks different today, something has changed in the layout of the terraces, somehow the wooden constructions that structure life in the guest house he and his wife run within these old stone stable walls have been reconfigured. I can’t quite make out what it is, and I have stopped to keep track. Jörg is the one who made me think of the term “Preliminary Order”. His style of building is textbook agile. Where others ponder and plan for months until they finally find a design that seems perfect, he builds quickly and rebuilds even quicker. And where others again do this by continuously muddling though in provisional arrangements, every single interim solution in Jörg’s construction process is so close to refined, it could be final. Jörg is, what we may call a proud subject of Agility. 

I am not a builder. I can renovate and fix things if they are broken, but I would not know where to start with a more complex construction. I can see a bunch of interesting parallels to organization development though. Interior architecture is one of the many instructive metaphors for organization design. You design a sensible layout of spaces and, if you like it or not, the users will appropriate that space. If you don’t build a kitchen on the second floor, soon you will find a water-cooker in the upstairs living room. If there is no accessible door to the back yard, a window will soon become a surrogate entry and exit point – with the soiled carpet below that window illustrating the suboptimal nature of this solution. Messy rooms say just as much about their inhabitants as they do about the functionality of the shelving. Informal structures (in other words: organizational behavior) compensate for flaws in formal ones. Obviously they also need to be compatible, or at least communicate on some level to form a healthy whole. If this communication is not played out as a struggle but as a feedback dialogue, in which the formal structures are continuously adapted, we are closing in on agile design and preliminary order.

 Agile Design is rapidly gaining attention, both, in the field of project and process development. The basic idea of the agile approach is to apply iterative mini-cycles of design, implementation and evaluation rather than walking through a „waterfall“ sequence of the respective stages as in traditional planning process. 

What does it take?

Here are some ingredients of the Preliminary Order approach for Organisation Development

  • 80:20 Mindset: According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of the deliverable of a task tends to be produced with 20% of the effort. It is the final polish that usually takes up the bulk of energy. Forget the final polish and invest that energy in further design cycles. Most of all, this takes a mindset that accepts near-perfect solutions.
  • Structural Hypothesis: Treat every solution as a hypothesis to test. Don’t get attached to your solutions and make sure the users don’t get overly attached to them either. Keep the ground soft. As my change management professor Charles Geany liked to note: Change catches up with change.
  • Anchor Platforms: When reconfiguring, don’t throw all the balls in the air at the same time. Continuous improvement works best if you can work from stable platforms. Constant change and improvement can be exciting, but it can also be stressful for people who like routines. Make sure to move back into the comfort zone every now and then to be able to integrate the stretch of development.
  • Keep Learning: Continuously collect feedback while the system is running. Tune in to user behavior as it compliments or compensates the formal structures. Are people using the door or the window? What are the deviances between the formal and the informal reality?
  • Agile Materials: Use materials that are of good quality but simple, flexible and not overly expensive. Build in a way that you can recycle these materials. Always have a stack of the core materials around. I am still thinking about what that could mean for organization development…

So, how does it work in practice?

In late 2015 we were hired to facilitate a development process within the German General Secretariat of one of the grand old welfare associations. A central division of the Secretariat was to be restructured from five units grouped around various target groups (children & youth, elderly, disabled etc) to three teams clustered around specific functions (finance, project & program management and research & innovation). While the headlines for the three new teams were set at the top management level, the functions, internal structure and interfaces were to be developed. The task seemed dubious at first: initiate a participative process to make sense of a solution that has already been fixed (“Here’s the answer, go and find the question”). But something told us, there were many more open ends in this equation than met the eye – and obviously the insights of the team members were vital to make them meet up in a sensible way. 

Consequently, we framed the new unit headlines as inspirational markers of the playing field.  As there was no experience in the organization with functional clusters we decided that a Preliminary Order approach would be suitable – start with a sensible draft solution, then continuously monitor and refine the system along the way. Other than in most our OD work, we accepted the time pressure and let it work for us to aid the early release of a structural design – knowing that the result was far from perfect. We deliberately left some parts of the structures open for later design cycles. Not surprisingly, problems showed up quickly and dissatisfaction stirred. 

We advocated to go through another complete development cycle. Our most noble task along that route was to help the management team feel ok with what at first seemed like failure to them. The second cycle started with observing the evolving workflow patterns and monitoring bugs and grey areas within the new system. These challenges were mapped and addressed in the redesign. Nothing was taken for granted and still, not everything was revised. Three months later, after another phase of “trying on” the new system, we added a third design cycle to refine the system even further. New needs had surfaced, fixed had uncovered new problems, and again Charles Geany rang in my ears: Change catches up with change. The result was a system that was pretty close to perfect – no one involved would have been able to design it from the outset. 

To be honest, the last paragraph is fiction -it’s how I would have liked to see it happen. In reality our process didn’t quite play out the agile way: We soon realized how hard it was to sell the Preliminary Order approach to our client. They did not want to experiment with preliminary solutions. The Top Management wanted things to be well-defined quickly and return to stable routines as soon as possible. Staff were equally unenthused: The prospect of throwing the cards up in the air by changing their working routines along with their team and office constellations every few months, seemed less than desirable to most. If Jörg is a proud subject of Agility, these guys were about to become disturbed objects of Agility. It wasn’t going to happen. So we abandoned the Agile leitmotiv. The bugs were patched, the dissatisfaction was eased and the boat went on and keeps on going with an ok but far from perfect design.

In the aftermath I wonder how we could have played it differently…. 

Of course, there is a price tag

Agility adds stress. In 1998 Richard Sennet wrote: „Flexibility in the working environment has made it difficult to the individual to make long term commitments and to shape a ‚narrative‘ or ‚history‘ for its future. Disorientation andfragmentation of coherent objectives  for the individual is the consequence“      

Since the publishing of his book, the number of sick leaves due to psychological illnesses in western organisations has tripled. The highest attributions are fast pace coupled with high workloads and multitasking. Reorganisations make for …

Sennett refers to an interesting definition of flexibilty as the quality a tree has, bending in the wind but also bending back to its normal form when the wind has subsided. This raises the question if there are limits to bendig back, if the . While the counterargument is equally valid (humans are genetically programed to live nomadic. Change is inherent in human culture and adaptation to changing environmental conditions is our strongest trait).

Agility is not to be confused with improvisation. Actually, agile development may be much farther from improvisation than from classic planning approaches. As a violinist disenchanted with the rigid frameworks of classical music I spent a good part of my musical life on Jam Sessions and Jazz Improvisation. In improvisation, design and implementation happen simultaneously. Inspiration, sensing, and (re)acting are intertwined in a moment of open awareness and communication. The nature of this communication is emergent. It cannot be predicted solely from looking what the players bring to the table. The groove happens or doesn’t happen. When it happens, it is a collective innovation that feels magic.

While agility does not presuppose any particular position on the continuum of design and emergence, agile development is quite a controlled affair. It certainly is about finding a groove in the communication between internal and external dynamics, but it lacks the curiosity for what Otto Scharmer calls the “Blank Canvas”. Agile Development has a plan, even if this plan is played out incrementally – it incorporates reflection, but this reflection has a clear purpose of defining the next step, the better feature, the revised order. Sometimes I wonder how compatible Agility really is with a commitment to emergent orders.

The concept of “Organic Agile” promises some answers here. 

Desire Path

The Role of User Patterns in Organisation Design

Cities and Organizations

In one of my next lives I would like to be an Urban Planner. There is something fascinating about the development of neighborhoods – something exciting about the interplay of design and emergence in an evolving city. In this respect cities have a lot in common with organizations. They are structured systems of rules and configurations and at the same time they are organisms that develop in their own dynamic right. You can design a zoning map and road infrastructure but it is much harder to manage traffic volume, control the actual use of buildings, get people to accept a public space or stay off the lawn. It is also quite hard to control which kind of people and businesses are moving in and out of the city, effecting growth, gentrification or decay of individual districts. The same is true for organizations: You can make someone the boss but how do you make sure they are actually accepted as a leader? You can build a knowledge management database but how do you make people input their learnings? You can craft job descriptions but how do you ensure people will be motivated to perform their jobs? 

Regulation is the cumbersome design part of this challenge: You create an urban masterplan and hand out investment subsidies and parking tickets to make it work. In organizations we find regulation in the form of incentives and sanctions as instruments of HR professionals and management. But regulation has a relatively low degree of efficiency when it comes to harnessing intrinsic motivation and creative dynamics in social systems. It makes me think of Fritz Glasl’s contrasting comparison of a ship’s propeller – actually a “water chopping device” – to a fish’s ability to use the currents and swirls in the water for its forward movement – even if swimming upstream like the salmon. 

So if regulation is like chopping water – what does the elegant salmon’s development model look like? Let’s explore Facilitating Emergence: You sense a current, a swirl of new development (fish have a large sensory organ called the “lateral line” for this purpose) and you respond to that impulse by working with it, embracing it, surfing it, also gently guiding it to move forward. It requires what Laloux has coined the “Sense and Respond” mode of development. 

Sounds nice, maybe even a little bit too nice. But how do you know the impulse is a healthy one? And how do you prevent this approach from effecting an erratic zig zag course that is so characteristic of the movement of fish?

At this point another analogy of cities and organizations becomes apparent: Both have to balance a general direction of development (e.g. to strategically respond to an evolving social and economic context) with diverging internal agendas (e.g. renters vs. owners, residents vs. developers – employees vs. shareholders, volunteers vs. staff etc). In effect, not every option is equally beneficial for every member and not every impulse is compatible with the bigger picture. In effect, emergence alone is not the answer, we have to take the point of “facilitating” quite serious. It can mean creating frameworks in which the various impulses can come together to form a healthy and sustainable whole. It can also mean finding reasonable and transparent ways of screening options. Not every current must be ridden. Not every opportunity must be taken. This is where a little step towards the control side is needed and a little critical distance from the Laissez-Faire style comes to play. And yet this is different from merely letting some participatory air into the management control and strategic design architecture. Facilitating Emergence is still mainly about emergence.

Which is to say, in one of my next lives I like to be an Urban Facilitator in support of healthy emergence. For now, I try to learn what I can from the discipline of Urban Development. One such learning hit me in the concept of Desire Paths.

The Duality of Structure

Imagine yourself walking through the park. It is a sunny day and you have nothing to do but get some fresh air. The paved walkway you are strolling along heads into an intersection with another path you like to take. Chances are, you’ll walk to the crossing, turn and keep on walking along the new path. Now imagine the same scene with you being on your way to work on a cold Monday morning. Most probably you will take a shortcut at the earliest possible point from the walkway onto the intersecting path – it’s economic (which is fortunately not the same as to say “it’s human”). If you are the first and only one to choose this shortcut, the grass will fold under your footsteps and after a few moments spring back up. If ten other people chose this way on the same day, a little line of dirt will be visible in the grass. This line acts like an attractor, an invitation for others who are passing this way, and very soon a new path will come about.

The mechanics of this interplay are described by Anthony Giddens’ in his “Theory of Structuration”. According to Giddens, social practices take place at the „inseparable intersection of structures and agents“. According to the recursive nature of social life, structures are both, medium and outcome of the reproduction of social practices: The path shapes as actors walk it. They walk it because its shape offers itself as a trajectory. Giddens call this the “duality of structure”.

The concept explains how social practices are reinforced to build structures (eventually sedimenting to become formalized institutions) and on the other hand how those structures are undermined as actors chose to ignore, replace or reproduce them differently. Both of these movements work gradually – the model does not foresee a discrete step or procedure to formalize (or abandon) a rule or practice. Nonetheless, much of organization development is about precisely this act of designing and agreeing on formal arrangements. How does this fit with Giddens’ model? Well, let us assume for a moment, that most of organization development’s fascination with formal structuring is a waste of time. A structure is not there just because we put it down in an organizational chart. A structure is there if there is a practice reinforcing it. In my experience, most organizations seeking Organisation Development support are ready to invest in the development of new structures but assume the implementation process will just work by itself. The idea behind this: If people are truly involved in the design process they will pull along whole-heartedly in the roll out. While I certainly agree that failing to involve those affected by a development is a costly mistake, involvement during design certainly does not guarantee smoothness of implementation. [i] The lesson here is: we must be maximally interested in agent behavior rather than merely obsessed with formal structures. 

An interesting notion of path development is the interplay of individual and collective choice. In a Tabula Raza situation when a system has no meaningful sub-structuring, no relevant attractors and no established interaction patterns between its members, every individual agent will act by their own agenda – which in becoming aware of the group formation process may include an observant orientation mode. In Jazz this is either the moment of cacophonic chaos or the time when everyone waits, to see what the others will come up with. In group dynamics this is the forming phase, where insecurity and lack of common focus need to be countered by clear external frames. Then, over time the actors develop patterns of interaction – in the best case they “find” a dynamic groove – while at the same time the system begins to espouse sub structuring (following Giddens, these are two sides of the same coin). Some of these emerging patterns become reinforced, some quickly wane or get drowned out. In this phase behavior is both, individually and systemically determined – actors keep moving with their individual agendas, but also get pulled in by the attraction of reinforced patterns. It is this moment of co-determination that is most interesting and decisive in a system’s evolution. Facilitating Emergence is about bringing groups back to this point of dynamic flow.

Excurse: Collective intelligence (or macro-intelligence derived from local knowledge) hinges on the coincidence of individually motivated behavior and social feedback. A simulation sequence illustrates the mechanics of this process: picture 1 shows a park layout with circular and crossing walkways. Computer generated pedestrians moving within the virtual park space are programmed to follow random individual motives (e.g. get from corner A to C; stroll towards the middle, then move to corner B etc.) and espouse a degree of attraction towards existing paths. A route taken leads to a deepening of the respective path, a path unused will wane over time. The effect of this dual motive simulation can be seen in pictures 2-4. The emerging system morphs over time to comprise the smallest suitable total path length. For individual actors the layout in figure 4 effects minimal detours. For the system as a whole it presents an optimized version in terms of resource efficiency. 

The simulation poses many questions and usually leaves people with wrinkled foreheads, which I am afraid I cannot straighten out here[1] . The assumption of systemically intelligent Desire Path paterns suggest the functioninig of the „Invisible Hand“. But markets without regulation have a tendency to underperform as fair and just social systems. Dominance and exclusion are a reality. Still, the hope the model relays is that individual actions that are linked by direct or indirect feedback can produce a collectively intelligent system. Many more insights about this can be found in Steven Johnsons “Emergence – The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software“.

The moment of pattern initiation is so precious because it doesn’t last forever. The regular course of development is marked by eventual path dependence, the lock-in on specific trajectories. Structures and mindsets that a minute ago still were forming a dynamic groove become dominant, development takes on a main direction, the system finds its homeostasis and then becomes frozen. If you ever experienced a Jam Session, the lock in on one mode and harmony sequence can become a spell and a true drag for players and audience, sometimes only to be disturbed by an almost violent modal break up if one player can’t take it any more. If we want to work with emergence in such a frozen system, in the words of Kurt Lewin – we first need to “unfreeze” it. 

Desire Path

In German the word for an informal footpath is “Trampelpfad”, a somewhat ugly word translating into trodden or stomped path. I like the English term “Desire Path” a lot better. It is lighter and more appreciative, cherishing the notion that every subversion marks a motive the formal system has not catered for yet. A desire line does not indicate resistance to the formal system per se, it points to a specific motivation for something yet undiscovered. As such it should not be an annoyance but a valuable and welcome source of information for the system designer and organisation developer.

The urban development discourse has embraced the Desire Path idea as it offers a vivid example of what user centered design can look like. Let us say, we don’t want our park audience taking a specific shortcut across the grass, so we put up a sign or build a fence. This may keep people off the lawn, but signs and fences don’t really work, if a shortcut is short or an attraction is strong enough. So we go the next step and spike our fences, hire security or install watchdogs. These are the regulatory measures we already explored above: incentives and sanctions to make the masterplan work out. They are costly and they make the user experience a bit unpleasant, in extreme cases giving people the idea that this is not really their park, so why should they care for it and pick up their trash?

image: Design applause, Rienk Mebius

Alternatively, we could change the order of things. In an approach of “Structural Bionics” the developers could learn from the Desire Lines. If there is a dirt shortcut leading up to a building entrance, rather than trying to make people use the main access road, pave the dirt shortcut to make it functional. Or on a larger scale: If you want to design a system of walkways, wait some time to find out where people are actually walking and then formalize the paths their movements leave. Large campuses like Ohio State University or the University of Toledo, parts of Central Park New York, as well as the lots of large settlements in Moscow have been designed this way (the latter by waiting for the first snow to trace where inhabitants actually walk between buildings and access points). It simply makes sense.

So, how can we bring the concept of Desire Paths to the field of organization development? Firstly, we need to frame the design challenge: what is it we are setting out to create? While for the campus planner the task of developing a system of walkways is quite straight-forward, organizational structures are complex and multi-dimensional. The narrower we frame the focus of development, the more clearly we will be able to distinguish the formal from the informal and the functional from the dysfunctional. On the other hand: the more we focus, the less we are able to see the bigger picture and become aware of potentials and solutions outside our field of focus. The scoping thus must incorporate movements of zooming In and zooming out. In the simplest version of a structural development initiative, we are out to redesign a process for a specific function or field of operation. On the grounds of this focus, we may follow five steps:

  1. Formal Mapping: Identify the Standard Operating Procedures in regards to the specific function or field of operation you are focusing on (formally agreed process descriptions, as far as they exist).
  2. Informal Mapping: Engage in ethnographic and participatory observation to map the informal practices associated with this field (daily routines, the way how things are actually done).
  3. Interpretation: Surface assumptions and underlying needs and factors motivating the informal practices and decode deviances and discrepancies of formal and informal procedures
  4. Evaluation: Distinguish functional and dysfunctional informal practices
  5. Integration: Facilitate a new set of formal procedures incorporating the functional informal practices and offering viable alternatives to the dysfunctional ones while taking their underlying motives into account.

Formal Mapping: Formalisations of structures and processes are stored in many places. They are codified in organizational charts, in job and role descriptions, in planning documents and meeting protocols. Sometimes they are condensed in quality handbooks or operations manuals. Usually much of what is written down does not reflect what actually happens on the ground, often people are not even aware the formal codes exist. Nevertheless, usually there is a reason and an intention behind the way something has been codified. Even if a formal procedure is not followed and is working out in practice, its intention may still be valid. A redesign should take such intention histories into account. 

Informal Mapping: A good part of behavior can be observed: how work is performed, who is talking to whom, who gets involved in which decisions – all of this can be captured in one way or another. Furthermore, like footsteps on a lawn, daily organisational practices leave traces: The way things are ordered and left in physical and virtual space can be regarded with a lense of “behavioural archeology”. Design Thinking provides a number of useful tools that support the observation of such user patterns (see IDEO toolkit for reference[2]). While some of them represent an ethnographic perspective (a participant observer experiencing the practices with an outsider’s view), others involve the users themselves (the “inside view”). If it is not possible to directly observe a process, the “Decision Culture Analysis” can generate helpful insights from a post fact perspective. Following this method, a team reviews a critical or typical episode and traces both, the actual events as well as the individual resonances and effects of the process from multiple perspectives. The dense visual representation of these puzzle pieces reveals factor relationships and patterns of typical behavior.

Interpretation: While consumer data analysis has become real good at mapping behavior and – by way of pattern analysis – predicting it, behavior interpretation and sense making seem to play no major role in this. Behavior can be observed more or less easily – its interpretation is a little trickier: Why do people behave the way they do? What motives (or “desires”) and which underlying assumptions are expressed in their practices? If they take a shortcut: Are they finding ways to do their work more efficiently, or to effectively not do it? Desire Paths can represent a form of resistance against formal systems. Whenever this resistance is not rooted in actors’ interest or needs but is affect based (e.g. as a psychological answer to the experienced loss of self efficacy), its concrete content is less instructive.

The answer to these questions rests with the actors themselves and the best way to find out is to ask them, individually or, even better, in focus groups. With some behaviours interpretation is simple: it’s just easier this way (the so called “economic shortcuts”). With other paths, its less obvious – we need to dig deeper. Given the psychological effects at work in organizational behavior (such as the rationalizations and attribution biases associated with social desirability and cognitive dissonance), such a “surfacing conversation” requires skillful facilitation and probing interventions that may feel provocative or confrontational at times. Some helpful questions for these conversations are 

  • Is the practice consistent? Has it always been like this? Are there exceptions? What drives them?
  • What makes the actual informal practice superior or preferable to the formal one?
  • What would be the (positive and negative) consequences of sticking to the formal procedure? What would be the most important preconditions?
  • What would be an advice to a new colleague in regards to performing the process? What basic assumptions are worth relaying?

Evaluation: If we take informal practices as an anchor for structural design, we need to distinguish “healthy” practices from those that are harmful to the system. As stated above: Not every current must be ridden. Not every opportunity must be taken. Economic Desire Paths (short cuts) can present system optimizations but just as well may be an effect of actors’ maximizing self-interest effecting the “tragedy of the commons”. Furthermore, in actors individual motives, short term gains are favoured over sustainable practices (possibly an effect of social imprinting).

Desires are neither good nor bad; behavior, however, can be helpful or destructive to a system’s operation. And someone has to make that call. This is where Facilitating Emergence departs from the concept of pure self-organisation. Three questions can help to evaluate an informal practice in this context:

  • Does it produce the desired results? This is the obvious one with the highest relevance of the three questions. If it works, don’t fix it. And inversely: if it feels great but nothing gets accomplished, it’s not good enough. The delicate part here is defining the level of results that matter. As a rule of thumb: look for the higher levels of effects, not merely the output level. If someone finds a way to cook an egg without boiling water first, don’t scold them for missing a vital step but praise them for their ingenuity. As silly as it sounds, unfortunately, this does not seem to be common sense in organisations.
  • Is it the simplest possible way? This process version of Occam’s Razor is all about keeping things light. When searching takes less time than maintaining an orderly system, order is inefficient. If a pretty good overview is good enough, precise monitoring data are over the top. The modern legend of NASA extravagantly developing the Space Pen for extreme temperature and pressure conditions while the Russians simply equipped their Cosmonauts with pencils – though appearently not quite accurate – drives this point home beautifully. One aspect of simplicity is resource efficiency. Another is the lower exposure to errors and again another is the ease of relaying or “teaching” the process.
  • Does it suit the agent? This third question is the least obvious one and yet not the least important. While ergonomics has looked at the task-agent-fit mainly from a physical and a cognitive perspective, we should regard the issue more holistically: a task should suit the person performing it also in regards to meaning, motivation, competences and preferred working styles. Only if all these levels are in tune with the agent, we can assume a healthy and sustainable work process. This implies that there will never be a “one best way” to codify a process. The codification cannot exist outside the task-actor relationship. And yet we need to formalize things in order to reduce complexity and ambiguity in organisations.

Integration: Once all the above mentioned analyses and evaluative steps have been taken, we have a pretty good picture of what our process needs to look like. The basic idea: rather than forcing the formal routines onto the desired practice, we regard and learn from the actual practice in order to create smart new routines. And instead of taking all behaviour for good practice, we embrace the compatible and substitute the incompatible practices. Codifying new routines is a process that requires active involvement of the ones performing them. However, involving people structurally does not grant their buy in and motivation to work with the results of a process. 

An Example: Documentation Practice 

To illustrate this process, let’s look at an example: Assume we are reviewing a process of project documentation. While the quality handbook foresees a continuous data input from inception to termination of the project, certain data are systematically missing. Instead of thinking about ways how we can make the project team conform to the formal documentation practices, we take a closer look at the pattern of missing data. It turns out, the missing data fall into three categories: a) data that would need to be compiled in “hot episodes”, i.e. times of high task loading in the project. b) critical data that can negatively effect internal performance assessments and c) data that do not have evident functionality in terms of their further use. Evidently, the motives for not inputting the data differ: 

  • In cluster a) we are dealing with an economic shortcut – people deprioritize data input in the light of high workloads. Seeing that intense periods tend to coincide with sensitive project phases which in turn contain loads of learning potential, this can be regarded a dysfunctional behavior. Nevertheless, the omission has valid motives that need to be taken into account. An answer in the redesign may be an Intense Period Debrief practice – a tool that captures the learnings from a critical episode in a compact “after action review” format.
  • In cluster b) we are dealing with political tactics – people hide sensitive information from their colleagues and bosses in order to safeguard their positions in the organizational power web. This can also be regarded as dysfunctional behavior, as it stifles the great development potential of learning from mistakes. Taking the valid protection motive into account, the re-design answer may be a remedy to the political risks of failure exposure (e.g. by an anonymous input process) or a reshaping of context (e.g. by positive connotation and explicit invitation to elaborate on failures like in “fuck up nights”).
  • Finally, cluster c) can be regarded as a functional short cut as the de-selection of meaningless data strengthens the capacity to focus on the meaningful. With this motive also being economic in nature, we do not need to substitute the practice of omission but rather to formalize it. The shortcut thus becomes the default.

Another Example: A Decision Routine

Let’s look at another example – the redesign of a decision process. The example is based on a case in which I consulted a membership association engaged in advocacy work on a European level. I usually quite enjoy work with advocacy organisations as their processes tend to be charged with high passionate energy and often catalyzing conflicts that derive straight from the policy fields they are engaged in. For some reason these organisations often also tend to be very professional and concerned with operational efficiency (the concept of “Mimetic Isomorphism” would suggest that this is a kind of non-strategic structural adaptation to the institutional frameworks they are lobbying). In any case, the management of the organization called for help on redefining their decision routines. After an initial scoping of the consultation we walked step by step through the Desire Path process. The process was conducted in a two day workshop with the entire 15 person staff and board of the organization.

1. Formal Mapping

The codified routines in the association were elaborate and down to the detail. The rather classic decision mechanics formalized in the quality handbook looked something like this:

  • The need for an informed decision is identified in the field
  • The issue / need is communicated up the chain of command.
  • The lowest manager with decision competence signals responsibility and starts consultation process (mainly with the field team if needed with the higher up / governance levels)
  • The respective manager takes the decision
  • The decision is communicated up (to governance level) and down (to field level) and is implemented consequently

2. Informal Mapping

Obviously, the reality of actual decision making in the organisation did not match the outlined formal procedures. A sequence of three Decision Culture Analysis reviews exposed the following typical pattern of action in decision situations:

  • The need for an informed decision is identified in the field
  • An informal consultation process among team members is started. Solutions emerge by trial and error response
  • The emergent response is eventually relayed to the next hierarchy level for approval
  • Depending on the micro-political climate and team-manager relationship, the response is either re-dressed as a formal decision by the manager or rejected and buried for years to come.

3. Interpretation: 

In further conversations we were able to surface a number of motives, needs & assumptions behind the informal practice patterns:

  1. Best solutions are found in the field, not from an oversight position.
  2. In the absence of sanctions, a trial and error mode can produce good results.
  3. Up-Down consultation loops take too long.
  4. The managers’ role as decision takers needs to be respected.
  5. Individual and team autonomy needs to be balanced with management control and accountability.

4. Evaluation

After identifying the underlying motives and assumptions, we jointly evaluated which aspects of the informal practices were helpful to the organisation’s work and which ones were harmful. This step started by a small group brainstorming which was subsequently aggregated to form the following assessment. 

  • Functional aspects: Field decision mode, unsanctioned trial and error mode, fast approval process.
  • Dysfunctional aspects: Climate dependence of approval, lack of transparency, lack of strategic oversight, lack of alternative process in case of rejection

5. Integration 

In the final step we crafted a new process that took these motives and the evaluation insights into consideration. The key objective here was to balance the “We in the field know best” with the “Management needs to be responsibly involved” stance. Some of that was more like a negotiation session. The final re-designed process had the following format:

  • The need for an informed decision is identified in the field
  • The issue is communicated upwards and an informal consultation process among team members is started. Solutions emerge by trial and error response
  • The emergent response is relayed to next hierarchy level for approval
  • Depending on a set of transparent strategic criteria the response is either approved or subject to a further consultation process.

Up to this day the model works fine. The changes from the way things actually worked before (early upward information and the Plan B loop) are not as big as the change in relation to the previous formal process. In fact, some people did not even regard the outcome as a great design achievement after our workshop. The ultimate measure of success, though, is that decisions are being taken effectively and in a transparent process, and that there are no more funny feelings about any discrepancy of formal and informal practices.

[1] Note: I found this picture in the net 5 years ago, did not note down the source and am now not able to retrace its origin


[i] While this may sound like old fashioned waterfall terminology with design and implementation as two distinct phases, this is not what I am aiming at. The interesting question, even in agile processes, is about access to arenas: who is involved in which process (not in which phase).


The Gestalt Wave as a Map to Understanding “Groove”

The field of System Dynamics gives us a solid base and a fine language to conceptualise how systems operate and self-regulate in general. It is a framework and an integrated view on all levels of analysis – from the mico to the macro. What System Dynamics doesn’t do is provide insights on the specific functioning of human interaction, the patterns that emerge from the way we as humans are “wired”. To add to this understanding it may be helpful to take a look at the field of social psychology and therapy.

Source: Zinker (SAGE)

In the 1970s, Joseph Zinker and colleagues at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland proposed an extended version of Fritz Perls’ “Cycle of Experience” – a wave model describing the process of self-regulation around the central Gestalt concept of “contact”. I will illustrate the six stages of this model with the classic analogy of eating an apple:

  1. Sensation: stimuli from the (internal or external) environment form an experience. For example: I have a strange uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. 
  2. Awareness: the stimuli are pieced together to a meaningful whole (a “figure” or “Gestalt”[1]) from which a need surfaces. I recognize the sensation as hunger and I feel the desire to eat.
  3. Mobilisation of Energy: in a build-up of tension the need gets energized and fuelled towards action (at this moment the individual is in maximal disequilibrium). I heighten my senses and actively scan my environment for food.
  4. Action: the energy is focussed and used to move towards a solution. I reach out and grab the apple on the table in front of me.
  5. Contact: as the solution gets realised, a part of the environment is assimilated in a healthy “act of aggression”. I bite, chew and swallow the apple.
  6. Withdrawal: The need is satisfied and a state of equilibrium is reinstated. The apple is gone and my sensation of hunger vanes.

An interruption of the cycle (be it accidental or habitual) leads to “unfinished business” – a state that ties a lot of energy. Gestalt therapy has identified a number of ways the cycle of experience may be disturbed or interrupted: deflection (preventing sensing and awareness), introjection (swallowing without chewing), projection (interpreting the inside as outside), retroflection (pointing aggression inwards) as well as confluence (blurring the boundaries between inside and outside) are some of them. One of the key interventions of Gestalt therapy is to aid clients in their struggles with such disturbances in order to walk through the steps of the cycle with more ease, establish real contact and self-regulate to a state of equilibrium.

The model has not only been applied to individuals, also to the dynamics within families and groups (described here as the “Cycle of Interaction”). Edwin Nevis built on these ideas focusing on decision making processes in teams and organisations. In his foundational work “Organisational Consulting: A Gestalt Approach” he describes patterns and pathologies of collective cycles and proposes organisation development interventions to aid the fruitful application of all stages in the cycle.

Nevis describes several classic wave constellations in teams: Figure 1 shows the “ideal case” – a synchronised activation pattern: team members become aware of a need for action more or less simultaneously, mobilize energy and act in synch. Figure 2 shows an unsynchronised pattern: everyone gets excited and ready to act at a different time. Figure 3 (top right) shows a pattern of resistance (or less judgemental of “multi-directed energy”): One person’s timing counters the wave of the remaining group. Finally, figure 4 shows a weak activation pattern across the group, i.e. low energy leading to lacklustre action.

When I first came across Nevis’ charts, they made immediate sense to me. They give a clean visual representation and a fine framework of sense-making for what is and what should be going on in teams. Nevertheless, they can be misleading: Group dynamics are not merely the sum of individual dynamics and they are not easily captured in a static image. The systemic and iterative nature of interactions effects interferences of individual dynamics, creating complex patterns that may become characteristic for a group but are hardly predictable at the outset. If person A always activates first and “hogs the impulse stage”, B and C may fall into a pattern of resistance. A may get frustrated with this situation, so will B and C and finally the whole team ends up in a state of depression – a low activation pattern “because nothing good comes from bringing up new ideas here anyways”. The resulting constellations hold more information than visible at first sight.

Let’s go back to the ideal case – alignment. In most current definitions of self-organisation, team alignment relates to shared objectives and coordinated action plans. In the aligned state, rather than looking in all kinds of directions, the team is jointly oriented like iron shavings in a magnetic field. This “state of alignment” is important and has been proven to be a relevant factor of high team performance; however, it is nothing spectacularly new. Throughout the entire history of leadership and HR, people have been concerned with the question how to align individuals with collective or corporate goals. If everyone is aligned with the leader or the company (be it by incentives, pressure or inspiration), individuals in teams are consequently aligned with each other. Conceptually this vision is not very far from a totalitarian one. Everyone aligned under one cause, rallied to one flag, wearing the same uniform. What’s missing here is the idea of autonomy. How can alignment work if we honour everyone’s need and right to be themselves and bring their individual strengths and perspectives to the table? Spotify has coined the term “Aligened Autonomy” – in an animated explainer video that went viral in the interested scene, Spotify agility coach Henrik Kniberg challenges the idea of a continuum between alignment and autonomy to form a two axis diagram: low alignment and low autonomy signify a micro management culture. Alignment without autonomy means that leaders are communicating the cause and directing the solution. Low alignment paired with high autonomy in turn implies teams are free to do whatever they like. In the high alignment high autonomy situation leaders focus and frame the issues to be solved but let teams decide how they are going to deal with them.

In my eyes the most interesting part of alignment is a team’s ability to create alignment when there is neither a carrot, a stick or a charismatic leader around – the self-regulatory “process of alignment”. This ability to create alignment “from within” is a central ingredient of self-organisation. It is about timing, about fluid roles of leadership and followership and about finding a groove to move through the cycle of interaction in synch. Obviously, eating the cake is sort of the point while baking it is merely the means. But baking the cake is the actual art. High performance teams are not about eating a great cake but about baking it.

A Story of Alignment

2018 marked the 20th anniversary of our consultancy SOCIUS, a moment of looking up proudly surprised as an established player on the scene. The year also was to become the watershed of a long and cumbersome process of profound change in our team dynamics. 

SOCIUS was founded by our most senior partner, Rudi, an entrepreneurial spirit with great drive and a magic sales pitch. Our growth throughout the years crept along organically: in the first decade, 4 of us joined, then another 4 in the 10 years to come. That is slow cooking! An exploration phase of setting up SOCIUS teams in three other cities was ceased after two years as communications went over our heads. We realized that we actually never aimed to get any bigger than a group sitting around a kitchen table for lunch – a ritual we practice quite consciously till today. We like it small and agile. 

As a team we always modelled the dual core dilemma: We cherish the autonomy and freedom of each member and share the ideal of a partnership of equals – yet, there is a heroic atmosphere in our founding story and for a pretty long time we got along quite all right with a concentric power and leadership structure. With the pioneer as an enterprising figure, there was a centre of gravity, sometimes a source of inspiration to follow, sometimes a turbulence to collectively get irritated or annoyed with. It was the perfect double bind, most likely for both sides. Such a state can go on for long, but is not sustainable forever – as in most pioneering constellations, things needed to widen up. We were all clear that something more profound than merely switching co-director titles and talking about generation change had to happen. We needed a new self-concept and we had to discover how to bring our ideal of a self-organising collective to full life and practice. After a row of deep and strenuous soul-searching, Rudi took a step back. First, embarking on a months-long journey to the woods, after that, largely abstinent from the stage of internal development, he opened up space for the new emerging dynamic. Given that the co-management roles we had distributed were decidedly not about replacing the old heroic leadership model, the stage was somewhat empty. 

In this moment, alignment was painfully missing. What was supposed to feel like a rebirth, a magic honeymoon, suddenly opened the view on our differences and on our insufficient experience to self-synchronise. Our resonance with each other was low. “Post heroic” seemed to imply “post focus”. Whenever someone came around with an idea or a development impulse, the reflex was to cautiously step on the break or to discover a counter impulse, effecting collective frustration and stagnation. Things felt wobbly and as the vacuum grew to become more painful, nostalgic thoughts about the good old times crept in – the hero never leaves the story. 

It took us half a year and many struggling hours to find a groove. When we found it, it suddenly seemed like a new day. The consensus to establish and practice a model of self-organisation based on shared leadership and decentralised authority was established quite quickly. The tools and practices to make it happen keep us on our feet to this day, but we are on the way and we keep learning. All of us together.

In my eyes, the most crucial competence we acquired in this process as a team, is the ability to synchronize and create alignment in micro cycles of development. What constitutes this ability? And how – if at all – can it be trained and supported? Let’s revisit the Wave.

Training to Surf

I believe that every step of the “cycle of experience” commands a certain skill. Just like an individual, a group needs to be able to sense, become aware, mobilise, act, make contact and withdraw (and in turn can be disturbed in any stage of this process). These skills can be supported by practices or substituted by formal process. If the process prevails without an organic practice to fill it, the skill will atrophy like a muscle that is not used. We know this from so many settings: if money is offered to donate blood, the intrinsic motivation to donate is reduced, if you stay too long on your crutches, your muscles will be weakened and its had to walk without them; if a kid gets pampered, it doesn’t learn to stand on its own feet. We know it, yet it is hard to really act on it. We still rather want the structure than the process. 

  1. Sensation: Sensing is physical. For a group to sense internal or external stimuli, it needs to shed some of its “knowing” and trade it for experiencing. Part of what makes a group attractive is the stability it offers. You are not on your own out there in the rain, but in the sheltered base of a collective. You know your team mates, you know what to expect from them, you know they know you. This comfort zone can become a trap, especially when the knowing is generalised to the group’s environment (“we know what to expect”). Sensations start with weak signals – if we want to catch them, we must short-wire our filters of perception and unlearn our knowing. We must open ourselves to experience. This is most of all an individual practice.  An important aspect of this is where to look. Some teams are quite introvert and are mainly concerned with their internal dynamics. Others are very much outward oriented and sense a lot more in the environment than in their “intestines”. Whatever the case, it is important to be attentive to both aspects to distinguish what actually is an internal issue and what is external: is my vision blurred because there is fog out there or because my glasses fogged up? Extrovert teams tend to project internal issues to the environment. Introvert teams tend to take things personal that are actually just “out there”. To make a sensation collective, there needs to be open communication and contact. It is no use, if only one person has a sensation and doesn’t share it. Sharing a sensation that has not yet become a collective awareness is something quite tricky: is it real? Is it relevant? Does it fit in? if we want to encourage collective sensing, we need to establish a positive bias on these questions. Everything you sense is real. Everything you sense may be relevant. Everything fits in, because in the end: nothing actually really fits in.  The formal practice to substitute sensing are routines of scanning internal and external environments. Formal scans, such as market research, benchmarking and strategic field analysis are helpful routines. If they become a “once a year we hire consultants to do this” kind of practice, they can become dangerous.
  2. Awareness: Group awareness forms within fields of resonance. For a team to collectively become aware, there needs to be a practice of sense making, a frame to interpret and assign common relevance and meaning to an issue. Whether or not this practice has a formal or informal frame doesn’t matter. Important is, that it is not something that you need to continuously organise. It has to become a second nature, something that happens routinely and with ease. If collective awareness is not on the menu for whatever reason, people that have an idea what a specific writing on the wall could mean need to step forward and propose a path of action. The words “need to step forward” are a soft imperative based on the realisation that groups depend on individual drive and courage to step up. Otherwise all we are is a flock of birds.
  3. Mobilisation of Energy: Collective mobilisation entails building commitment. Evidently, a managed decision to deploy resources and people to a cause has a different effect than people discovering they want to commit themselves. In a team alignment process this phase is characterized by situative leadership and emerging followership. Both of those roles require courage and need to be learned and practiced without becoming fixed roles. Followership is an underappreciated art. One of my favourite clips that I frequently show at leadership and OD trainings is “First Follower – Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy”. In this 3 minute clip Derek Sievers dissects a scene at a festival … The questions asked from a sender perspective during the sensing stage (relevant, fitting in…), are of course equally valid to be asked from the receiver’s side: Is this impulse relevant and does it fit in? Or is it just a freak event, a disturbing whim that will pass? Again, the bias should be towards trusting, while at the same time not losing sight of what’s really relevant.
  4. Action: In the light of the Gestalt distinction between action and contact, collective action is not about implementation but rather about the decision for a course of action. Choosing the right response to a stimulus is not trivial. While the awareness of an issue and the readiness to act on it may be in alignment, the direction to move in often is not. This is where situative leadership and the ability to deal with conflicting impulses become relevant. Self-organisation is often illustrated by the image of a fish swarm or a flock of birds. The idea transported here is the absence of leadership: everyone is a follower at all times. Changes in direction are not attributed to a wilful or creative act of any individual but are purely reactive – a turbulence, an outside enemy, an obstacle in the environment cause a collectively intelligent reaction. This is a rather sad image of self-organisation. It neglects the possibility of a creative impulse and development drive of individuals that is embraced by the collective. 
  5. Contact: If the collective wave has been smooth and in synch to this point, “doing it” can be a true flow experience. The act of implementation – writing the position paper, organising the clean-up event, hiring the new administrator – always effects a change of boundaries: take a bite and bring it in. Biting requires teeth. The reasons why in many organisations teams are quite good at making decisions but very bad at implementing them is that their mouths are already full. If you are chewing on your daily business, taking another bite to develop something new is not going to be very promising. The skill to learn here is to quickly shift focus from the daily activity portfolio to a development task and to get it done, be it in a forceful push, a carefully planned sprint or a disciplined ongoing practice. There is a lessons from martial arts here – a focus of breath that establishes a striking power way beyond the regular performance. This is all about practice.
  6. Withdrawal: Even in a VUCA world of continuous adaptation, a development move should have a signified end point. While withdrawal in the is not so much an active step but rather a state of resolution, this too requires a practice within the team: In order to share individual perspectives, a joint review of the cycle and its outcomes is helpful. Working groups should be thanked and disbanded. Successes, as well as disasters, should be celebrated. If the issue is resolved for everyone, the team can now go back to business as usual. If the Gestalt is left open (because implementation was stalled, the contact-phase did not happen in a satisfactorily manner or individual members are not on board with the outcome), energy will be drained from the team. To move out of a wave as a team is quite a vital part. The final picture can be the defining image that rests with us when remembering the cycle. 

What comes after withdrawal? The Void. A blank canvas. It is this moment of Stillness that we need to learn to embrace. It this moment that is crucial for a new Gestalt to emerge.

[1] As Gestalt theory formulates it: “A figure emerges from the ground.” To understand the figure-ground concept, it is helpful to understand the Gestalt term: Gestalt is a meaningful whole, a figure that is complete but at the same time dynamic as it forms and vanes against the background of an experiential field.

Layers of Organisations

A Systemic Map of Culture, Structure & Strategy

The great and confusing thing about maps of social reality is that there is a million of them and they are all accurate[i]. Unlike categorization models, which seek to explain and predict the world, social reality maps can be understood as frameworks of sense-making[ii]. Just like a common language, a shared sense-making framework is helpful to facilitate joint action.

The map I use to make sense of what happens within organizations is a simple one: It has three layers and three sectors. You can imagine it like our Planet Earth. 

The innermost layer is the “Core”. In our planetary analogy we might think of it as a ball of boiling hot matter containing the passions, deeper values, beliefs and basic assumptions about the world that form the organization’s magnetic field. Often the Core is coined at the founding moment of the organization, but it may shift and develop with new important people joining and meaningful events imprinting on the Core. It hardly ever is a homogenous matter and while this can be strenuous, it is not necessarily a problem. The most exciting organizations I know are powered by conflicting forces within their Core that create tension and drive development like the poles of a battery. The most tragic ones have forgotten about their Core and can’t “feel” themselves.

Wrapped around the Core there are several coats of rock – formal arrangements that make up the “Codex” of the organization. Here we find statutes, configurations, strategic plans, rules and operating procedures – the hardware and operating systems that provides the more or less stable shape and profile of the organization.

The third and outermost layer is dynamic. It hosts the organizational equivalents of water, organic matter and lifeforms which we may call “Organizational Behavior”. This surface layer interacts directly with the environment and is as much influenced by external factors as it is by the inner forces and deeper layers of the organization. It comprises both, people following formal routines and people “doing their thing” to form what Stacey calls the “Shadow System”3.

The three layers are compatible with Ed Schein’s model of organizational culture: Artefacts (effects and traces of culture we find on the surface in the daily life of organizations) mostly belong to the layer of Behavior. Espoused Values (formal value statements and written commitments of cultural conduct) are part of the Codex. Underlying Assumptions (the deeper, partly unconscious beliefs and value systems) in turn lay within the organizational Core. 

The sector dimension of the map focuses on the triangular relationship of Organizational Culture, Structure and Strategy. The three subsystems divide only the Codex and the Behavior layers with the Core building the common base of all three sectors. As there are many ways of conceptualizing Culture, Structure and Strategy it may be helpful to provide a set of working definitions here. 

The subsystem of Culture in our model relates to the way relationships are made up in the organization – the “soft side of how things are done”. Organisational culture is rooted in social beliefs and philosophies (Core), formalized in value statements and guidelines on issues like leadership and collaboration (Codex) and lived out in the very concrete practices of everyday social interactions (Behavior). 

The Structural subsystem determines how the workflow and decision process are organized – the “hard side of How”. Its foundations are again deep seated beliefs and norms related to work and social development (Core), its formal manifestations include organizational charts and operational routines (Codex) while the outer layer is represented by informal structures and real life processes (Behavior), including the many shortcuts and micro-political tactics taken on a daily basis. 

Finally, the subsystem of Strategy defines the organization’s goal orientation and mode of generating impact – the Why and the What. Strategic elements of the Core are passions and deep level theories of change, formal elements of the Codex are strategic plans and business models while the layer of Behavior is represented by the actual portfolio of (useful and senseless) activities and projects the organization is engaging in.

Organization development can step in at all three layers and all sectors. In many cases the initial focus of a development process will deepen and shift and other sectors will come into view. Sometimes, working on the outer layer of one sub-system will reveal more deep seated issues in the Core which in turn effect other sub-systems. You cannot merely drive a new strategy or install a new functional structure without considering how this fits with your organizational culture (the famous quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is expressing nothing less[1]). The same issue is highlighted in Tychi’s metaphor of the “Strategic Rope”, which describes the intertwining of subsystems, which stabilizes the organisation, while at the same time inhibiting change within the overall system. We need to look at our organizations holistically but sometimes we need to untangle and dissect their subsystems in order to initiate development. Let’s take a look at different approaches to working with the three layers.

Working on the Core

It is pointless to work on an outer layer of the organization if a problem is rooted in mental models and belief systems within its Core. Unfortunately, it is very hard to get to the Core. Sometimes it erupts, spills out to the surface, burns down a village and then hardens as a strange black mass, but usually it works invisibly through the other layers from within[iii]. To get to the Core we need a heat suit and a deep diving protocol such as Glasl’s U Procedure (later taken on by Otto Scharmer to inspire Theory U) or deep dialogue techniques that tap into the narrative and the collective subconscious. Following the Discrepancy Analysis, we can also deduct the inner make-up of the Core by tracing the misfits between the Behavior and the Codex: If a value statement says to trust people with responsibility, however, the dominant decision practice is top down, something might be off in the Core (e.g. fundamental beliefs on peoples’ capabilities such as McGregors Theory X)[iv]. In fact, it is not too rare that the Codex will contradict the Core as it is often used as a means to drive deeper change: If we write on the office wall that we all love and respect each other, maybe it’s true; more likely it is something we wish for.

Working on the Codex

Working on the Codex is the classic business of designed change. It involves developing statutes and plans, shaping structures and processes and formulating guiding principles. In the traditional organization development approach, this process involves a diagnostic sequence (what is the status quo and how is it working out?), a targeting sequence (how would we like things to be?), a planning sequence (what could this look like in detail?) and – after a formal decision – an implementation sequence (how do we get it into practice?). In many OD processes the implementation, which reaches into the behavior layer of the organization, is wildly underestimated. Change agents often believe that once a new structure or plan is ratified, behavior will change with it – especially if the development process was somewhat participatory. In reality, this is when the actual work starts.

While the diagnose-target-define-implement choreography still is dominant practice, agile development approaches are quickly gaining traction. They incorporate quick loops of assessment, planning and implementation within a trial and error mode, thus keeping the Codex lean and flexible. The far end of this development is a Codex which is reduced to a set of principles that sit close to the Core and help the system continuously self-organize without further mediating structures and plans. It must be noted here that such “minimal-structuring” does not equal the absence of structure. Principles are high level frames in which organization behavior is oriented. Organizations that fail to provide such high level frames are in danger of being absorbed with the internal consequences of creeping disintegration. 

Working on Organization Behavior

The first unsexy aspect that comes to mind when thinking about working with organisation behavior is regulating and policing: We have rules so let’s make them stick. If people are not conforming to them, let’s motivate them with incentives or sanctions. A somewhat nicer but no less ambivalent analogy may be gardening: If we want the “right” plants to have space and light, we need to weed the “wrong” ones out; if we want a fruit tree to be sustainably productive and healthy, we need to prune it and remove branches that suck energy and prevent light and wind from going through. Strategically sorting out what an organization does, is not much different: A portfolio analysis can effectively help to sort out activities that are non-productive, both, in the sense of mission and overhead contribution. However, how can we best assess this contribution? How can we tell the “right” plants from the “wrong” ones? If the only guideline for weeding is, whether or not something conforms with the plans and regulations, we kill innovation, we kill emergence and we kill learning. Therefore, it may be very wise to turn the relationship: Yes, agreements should be kept and patrolled (otherwise a group is a crowd and an organization is just some lines in the sand). The true art is, to craft agreements that are rooted in patterns of behavior and that are reviewed as often as these patterns change with the needs and circumstances they reflect. In simpler words: instead of making people conform to structures, how about making structures conform to people? The next chapters will spell out some ideas and approaches of how this can be done.

[1] Wether it actually originates from Peter Drucker seems to be under debate (how can that be?)

[i] The constructivist would be more generous here: currently there is actually 7 billion of them… and counting. Unlike models, which are all wrong (while some remain to be helpful)

[ii] In the words of David Snowden, the ingenious father of the Cynefin framework: in a categorisation model the framework precedes the data (which is good for exploitation), while in a sense-making model the data precedes the framework (which is useful for exploration).

[iii] I apologize for the improper geology at this point – clearly it is the magma of the mantle that erupts

[iv] Such a conclusion has to be taken carefully though, as any behavioral pattern can also be an effect of external factors such as dominant sector practice or expectations by partners and clients.

Understanding System Dynamics

Self-Regulation and The Hidden Power of Feedback Loops

“You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”
Jon Kabat-Zinn


At the age of 16 I spent a hormone laden high-school year in La Jolla, California. It turned out to be one of the more dramatic rollercoaster rides in my personal development, in large due to the stark contrast between the old order of the sheltered Hamburg liberalism and the flashy cocktail cherry life of the nouveau riche in Southern California. It was a good year with many strange fruits to taste. Digesting the experience, I spent hours in the Cove, simply gazing at the Ocean with its mighty waves rolling to shore and the surfers on their boards waiting to catch the next big one. I never had the aspiration to become a skilful rider in my limited time there, but the scene certainly left an impression on me – the immediate relationship of surf and surfer has a fascination that still lingers. It represents a strong symbol of the Sense and Respond mode and – within some boundaries – a fine metaphor for process work.

If we want to ride the dynamics of an organisation, it is imperative to get a feel for its underlying currents and patterns of development. As these patterns tend to be complex, at times even chaotic, a purely analytic approach will not get us far here. High focus attention, the sharp observing eye and categorizing mind that is classically associated with intelligence, can easily fail to catch the bigger picture. Rather, we need to be gazing – observing with open awareness, a state that David Gelernter calls low focus consciousness in his work “The Tides of Mind”. It is not just the eye that judges the size and angle of the oncoming wave; it is not just the feet in the water that feel the swell; not just the sense of balance that detects the backdraft of the board; and not just the frontal lobe that counts the rhythm of small and large waves and determines the timing for the next move. It is all of the above, melted in a trance like state of sensing – open awareness. We experience this state very naturally a couple of times a day as we move up and down the high focus-low focus continuum. And we can train the zoom in-zoom out motion between these states like we can train a muscle. Meditation helps. Sitting quietly observant in a turbulent environment helps. Regarding a piece of art or a familiar face with a shifting mode from examining detail to experiencing the whole will train the muscle. 

When I go into an organisation to accompany a process I don’t start with a firework of smart and stirring proposals or the big bang of a process kick off. I start with some very quiet talks and observations. I gaze. I put my feet in the water, sense the drafts from underneath, take in the rhythm of communication and sense the oscillating swing of competing values underneath everyday business. Of course I play my role in setting up the process, but I try not to disturb the organisation in its existing patterns quite so quickly. I don’t believe in an initial pattern breaking intervention, a big shake up to unfreeze the system. I don’t think it is helpful or sustainable for a profound development process. Sometimes this makes people nervous and anxious. They want to be unstuck and get on with it. They want revolution or divine intervention to open a blocked road or a new strong hand to lead the way. That’s not my style. I believe that every pattern and every dynamic holds the key to its own development – feeling the pattern and sensing the nature of this key comes first.

Of course, there is an analytic part in all of this as well. In order to make sense of the patterns we observe, we need to be fluent in the universal language of system dynamics. This part is about understanding the functioning of flows and stocks, feedback loops, buffers and delays. It is universal in the sense that all open systems run on these mechanisms. Using the system dynamics language, we can try to describe the individual make-up of the system we intend to ride. Let’s take a look.

The Basic Language of System Dynamics

One of the great works to advance my understanding of organisational dynamics is Donella Meadows’ “Thinking in Systems”. Meadows was a system dynamics geek at MIT. In her lectures she would draw out wild models with multiple nested feedback loops to explain such diverse things as perfectly tempered bathtubs, jealousy in relationships or the world trade in petrol. A scientist at heart, she made sure the models were lean enough to provide an X-ray view of very complex issues and comprehensive enough to avoid oversimplification. Paired with that scientific rigor was a glowing passion for a sustainable world (actually, as the lead author of the Club of Rome initiated report “Limits of Growth” in 1972 she may be one of the most influential but least known figures in the history of sustainability). Unfortunately, Meadows never saw the publication of “Thinking in Systems” as she died unexpectedly in 2001. Tankfully, Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute put things together in the years to come.

The foundational idea of system dynamics is beautifully simple and yet may lead us to stunningly complex considerations. Let’s start with the basics: In Meadows’ words, “a system is an interconnected set of elements that are coherently organised in a way that achieves something” (Meadows 2015, 11). This something is what we call the “function” of the system, in case of human systems it may be called “purpose”. Random elements in proximity to each other (e.g. sand scattered on a road or a crowd waiting on a train platform) don’t match this definition – even if some parts may be interconnected, the elements don’t have a common function or purpose. Functions, in Meadows’ terms, are not defined by a stated goal, but by the actual operation of a system. If a company’s mission statement proclaims sustainability but all deals are made without regard to environmental impact, the system’s true function is most likely maximizing profit rather than sustainable business. In the Planetary Model, it would thus be the layer of Organisational Behaviour that gives away the true purpose of an organisation, not its Codex. Nonetheless, it is the Core that holds the purpose, and of course behaviour is attributed as much to the make-up and pull of the inner layers as to environmental factors. But let’s leave this thought aside for a moment and follow Donella Meadows.

System Dynamics assumes that all systems self-regulate to maintain their integrity. They effect both, a healthy target level of key parameters (relative stability or dynamic equilibrium) while continuously adapting to their environment (constant change). It is the interconnections, that play a key role in this process. We are a lot more used to seeing elements rather than interconnections. Interconnections are marked by flows – physical flows, flows of information or communication (in social systems). The mechanisms regulating these flows are called feedback loops. When looking at self-regulation in systems, we can distinguish two kinds of loops: balancing and reinforcing feedbacks.

The balancing loop will decrease a key parameter once it exceeds a certain target level (and vice versa: increase it, when it has fallen below that level). Let’s take the body as an example of a self-regulating system: Sweat is the body’s reaction to heat in order to keep its temperature at a healthy level around 37 degrees Celsius. Shivering in turn is the body’s intervention to regulate upwards if its temperature drops too low. Another classic example is the self-regulating nature of populations in ecosystems: Once there are too many predators in an ecosystem, the prey population will be decreased, in effect decreasing the predator population as it runs out of food. The balancing feedback loop – without any single member of either population consciously acting on it – is keeping the ecosystem in dynamic equilibrium (i.e. the sum of inflows equals the sum of outflows). This is how sustainability is built into the system (until it gets messed with). 

In organisations we find this kind of balancing feedbacks around parameters that need to be maintained within a certain range for strategic or cultural reasons: for example, if the organisational culture is built on harmony, any looming conflict will be subject to a balancing feedback loop that quickly defuses heat and resolves tension. A more complex version of this balancing mechanism comes into play where competing values make up an organisation’s core (take the classic freedom vs. commitment dilemma as an example). In this case most likely, we will find a balancing feedback loop to either side of the equation: if one side grows to become dominant, the other one will rise up and reinstate a “healthy” balance. In many cases this will lead to a pattern of oscillation, a pendulum move between the two value states (obviously: this oscillation is not always the best and most sustainable way forward). Systems can get stuck in the pendulum swing. In that case, the balancing feedback loop puts a break on transformation.  We will come back on how to deal with this.

The other kind of feedback loop is the reinforcing loop. In this mechanism the increase or decrease of a core parameter is progressively enhanced in the same direction and can escalate to effect dramatic change or break down of the system. Classic case: The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Erosion is another example of a (negatively) reinforcing loop: plants are taken away, soil erodes, even less plants can grow. In organisations we find a number of such reinforcing mechanisms: Most prominently, power has a reinforcing nature: The one in power can access more resources in effect furthering his/her power. This, by the way, is what fuels the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” described by the sociologist Robert Michels. Equally, organisational cultures and frames are built around strong reinforcing feedbacks: Where there is a dominant interpretation, there tends to be a filtered perception, thus stabilizing the dominant mental model. We know what we see – but we only see what we know. A dominant mind-set, just like a strong organisational culture can quickly become a trap.

So how do we work with these loops?

  1. Don’t fight a balancing loop: One of the classic experiences in organisation development is the push back of a system that gets pushed. The stronger you navigate to one side, the more forceful the system resists and veers to the other. The mechanism underneath this puzzling effect is the balancing feedback loop protecting one side of the Core Value Equation. If you are pushing for commitment, the freedom side will push back. If you are pushing towards decentralisation, the centralisation impulse will gain strength. And rather than pushing on with more force, which in turn will produce more counter-pressure, it may be wise to step back and address the underlying equation. Is it still valid? Is it applied correctly here or projected with distortions? And are there ways beyond the either-or continuum? (Syst’s Tetralemma solutions seem a way forward here). As long as you fight a balancing loop on the surface, you are fighting yourself.
  2. Use the swing of the pendulum: Earlier I talked about the oscillating nature of development swinging back and forth between competing values. Oscillation can be annoying. As soon as you think you are on track, things suddenly swing backwards. One answer I find to this in my process work is the hibernation strategy. If I know the backswing will come and go, I can simply sit it out. Every time the pendulum swings in the direction I want to move, I use the momentum of that swing. While things swing the other way, I simply take a breath and step back to observe. I know, the pendulum will come back around. This is different from not taking things seriously. It is simply a way to work with them. 
  3. Keep an eye on the reinforcing feedback loops: Reinforcing loops can be your friend in effecting change and getting things unstuck. The Arab spring could not have happened without the reinforcing feedback built in the architecture of social media. Online, attention breeds attention in an exponential way. From a revolution standpoint, this is great. From a systems operations standpoint this is deadly. Reinforcing loops may destroy a system, if an accelerating dynamic gets out of hand. If your agenda is reform and not revolution, you may want to put some padding on the reinforcing loops. 
  4. Factor in delays: A development process takes time. Between deciding on a strategic move and its actual implementation, several months may pass, in some large and bureaucratic structures even years. This delay time impacts the self-regulation of the system and may lead to further oscillation. Here is a progression I see a lot: A team recognizes an internal collaboration issue and jointly agrees to tackle it. An agreement on a new way of doing things is made with everyone on board. Of course, unlearning old behaviour takes time and requires practice. The new conduct does not magically happen overnight – things move slowly. Some people get impatient, they call for even stricter rules and sanctions as they feel the first agreement was too lax. So new, tighter rules are made. By this time, all movement towards the initial agreement is depreciated. Those that were sceptic but willing to go along, are frustrated. Commitment is revoked, the agreement collapses and things are worse than before. From here, the story starts over again. This oscillation, caused by delays and subsequent overshooting, is quite similar to the classic shower experience (the hot water faucet is turned on but doesn’t deliver hot water immediately, leading to a further opening, which, as the hot water arrives, turns out to be an overshoot, i.e. the water is too hot, which is then compensated by turning the hot water off, thus effecting an undershoot, i.e. the water gets too cold etc.). Sometimes all it takes is a patient, steady hand.
  5. Read the true purpose: As mentioned above, a system’s function is revealed not by what is written on the package but by its actual behaviour. Most of the puzzling patterns in organisations have to do with a discrepancy of formal and informal system layers. Discrepancy analysis is a powerful tool to reveal these rifts: Balancing loops that make no sense in the light of the stated values; reinforcing loops that counter the official compass needle; once we decode the true purpose of a system, these weird behavioural patterns suddenly make sense and in turn the codified formal layers seem off – we realise, it is the Codex that needs attention. In my experience these realisations are break through moments in a process.
  6. Strengthen the system’s ability to self-regulate: As consultants and facilitators (not to mention leaders) we often take on the responsibility to regulate a system, especially, when its ability to self-regulate seems to be impaired. This can become a trap. The more we substitute internal with external regulation, the less likely the system will build up the ability to self-regulate. 

The Lost Navigator

I am not sure what the role of this little text is within the overall mosaic on self organisation development and why it is pegged as the starting point here. But it is and so it must mean something. Dialogic Organisation Development assumes that transformative change starts with a “generative image”, a new metaphor to make sense of yourself in the world. Maybe this is mine. 

Nested in the Thousand Islands of the St Lawrence River lies the little town of Clayton. Built in the early 1800s as the railroad head for the region, it drew traders, smugglers, pirates and patriots fighting against the British in the northern colonies. Today it is unwinding New Yorkers and visitors who spend mild summers and dramatic falls on the Stream and around the Islands. Walking down the Clayton shoreline among the sturdy stone houses you may stumble upon The Lost Navigator – a fine place for serious drinking. On my first visit to Clayton I came by this little bar, reading its sign with a strange powerful resonance, but unable to step inside. Later that day, when steering my Kayak through the Thousand Islands, I suddenly understood the name: The River is like a jungle. You have no clue, where you are, the islands all look alike, they melt into each other. You give up trying to figure out exactly where you are at and succumb to finding out where you go next. You ride the wave between steering and being guided by the landscape. You explore…

self organisation development is a collection of writings about letting things happen without just letting them happen. From an angle of my field of work – organisation development – I follow the question how to read, surf and gently guide the dynamics of a social system to find and unfold its groove. I am interested in how we can rely more on self-organisation and emergent development in process facilitation and what can be done when things get sticky or stuck along this way.

The texts published here are excerpts of a book I am wrestling with. They are not perfect and complete but they want to get out. I am happy to exchange views and insights on the ideas shared in them.

Lost Navigator Image by: Quyen Dinh, ParlorTattooPrints