The Fear of Loss in Loose Coupling

Overcoming Design Challenges of Self-Organising Structures

The move to Self-Organisation always involves people stepping up and people letting go. On rare occasions this is played out as a graceful dance that found its time. More likely it comes as a short and juicy clash, or worse, as a long painful drag. In the case I am about to share we were expecting the clash. I very much hope, we are not in for the drag.

I am sitting in a Bucharest Cafe after the Big Showdown that didn’t happen. It is the morning after the Greenfield festival, the annual members gathering of an association I worked with for over 15 years. Greenfield runs multilateral programmes of civic education and environmental awareness throughout Europe and beyond, strengthening and connecting actors across various fields to co-shape positive social development. Over the last years the organisation has grown and developed like mad. Today Greenfield has about 1500 members in 20 countries and an international staff of 40 people working from a Berlin office. I love this organisation with its dedicated people and its dynamic drive and I really want it to be healthy.

(Side-note: There is a case to be made for processes in which you are a familiar face. Classically, OD consultancy requires a half-in-half-out facilitator position in which you are able to dock on but at the same time bring enough outside perspective to the table. Sometimes, when you have worked with a client for too long, that’s not the case anymore and you ought to step back. In rare and precious occasions, it is exactly the delicate insider knowledge (coupled with a clearly marked facilitator role) that brings things forward. In my experience it is particularly complex settings that call for this insider-position. The unknown, incomprehensible is not confined to the environment any longer but has entered the city walls and dwells inside). 

The task I was trusted with was to facilitate a governance reform that should propose a bold new model of decision making while leaving the Greenfield spirit intact (a bit of a mixed message, but worth a try). The bulk of development work was done by a small mandated cross-functional group during several retreats and online sprints over the last year. It was an intimate and quite effective process that led us through a rollercoaster journey: driving loops of interviews, stakeholder meetings and consultations with existing governance bodies, crafting alternatives, falling in love with them and letting them die again, developing personas to collect points of view and “test drive” the model from their perspective.

The key problem we set out to tackle was the split between formal and informal decision arenas: people who were formally accountable (most notably the elected board) were not actually the ones in charge, while people who were factually taking charge (most notably programme executives with partner organisations in the field) did not have a voice in the formal governance routines. To make things a bit more challenging, the process was over-layered by a major funding crisis with multi million Euro cuts due to the strategic reorientation of a major funder. In a way, we were looking for an elegant way for Greenfield to survive and come out stronger from this crisis.

Our first struggle was to overcome the design convention that governance and creation of impact should not be co-located. The classic view of an association looks like an hourglass: On the upper end is a sphere of members’ deliberation, funnelled into a board of directors that interfaces in the hourglass bottleneck with the executive directors on the operative lower half of the structure – the business or programme sphere. (By the way, I think this bottleneck accounts for at least half of the governance problems we find in classic associations). While the members’ sphere is all about democratic process associated with higher level (strategic) governance, the sphere of programmes is about creating impact, associated with lower level (operational) decisions. 

(after: 2004 Christian Koch und Thomas von Holt, Bonn)

This division derives from an old-fashioned view of “good governance” and is somewhat impractical, to say the least. In contrast, self-organised and cooperative working models require that impact creation and governance be placed in the same hands. In consequence, we looked for ways to give all parties creating impact a voice in the governance system and to enable all parties with a stake in governance to contribute to the impact of Greenfield. The shelves of the German legal system are not necessarily stacked with formats to serve such an idea and it soon became obvious we would need to do some hacking of legal structures. 

We all agreed that the natural impulse to re-establish order by giving the power back to formal decision makers and putting a lid on renegade programme autonomy was not the way forward. Recognizing that programme staff as well as some members’ and alumni groups were already self-organising around fields of impact, proposed a reality that needed to be honoured, not cut back. The old Gestalt wisdom rang true: Only when you become what you really are you can start to change. In effect, the second cut with conventional wisdom was to go with the Desire Path approach: find traces of organisational behaviour; decode the motives behind them; honour the motives in the design of the new formal processes and structures; make way for things to find a new groove.

The model we came up with in the development process was simple but full of implications: It was based on the idea of Loose Coupling. Instead of an association with individual membership, we proposed Greenfield to become a network association with institutional members – a shared platform in which programme clusters as well as sub-groups of members and partner organisations could join forces to share knowledge and create impact. The governance would follow a decentralised logic with a Council overseeing the integrative functions of the network. The “market place” – shared infrastructure and joint commoning practices – would be hosted by a lean professional backbone team. To create a membrane around the association, the model proposed a Community Membership for individuals which did not imply a legal status but simply signified a commitment to values and mission of Greenfield and granted low threshold access to the Commons. Wherever people would feel inspired to interact around certain issues of development, exchange or learning they could do so in the format of “Circles” – a practice of regular but dynamic self-organised meetings. Circles, as well as institutional members would be represented in the Council. The model conceptualised Greenfield as an ecosystem with a minimal structural base and a great procedural dynamic. 

After one year of drafting work in the development group and a number of consultative loops it was time to bring our proposal to the General Assembly – Showtime in Bucharest. The clash we expected was due to the fact that the current members would essentially have to vote themselves out – handing over their deliberation power to a new body that yet had to be crafted. A leap of faith, even for people on board with the decentralised network idea. Surprisingly, the Big Bang did not happen. Despite some very heated discussions throughout the festival, the model was almost unanimously endorsed by the members. 

The discussions we had circled around three main issues: 

Stability of Loosely Coupled Systems

Will loose coupling make the organisation stronger or more vulnerable? How big is the risk of drifting apart? How strong will the commitment of one programme cluster be to help out another cluster in need?

In order to trust the model, it is necessary to shift our understanding from static to dynamic stability. While the classic idea of stability is associated with tight coupling (things are mounted together so tightly that they can weather any storm), there is another kind of stability which is associated with the ability to bend rather than break (note: static stability implies brittleness): Reeds are dynamically stable, so are high tech construction materials that work with moving undergrounds. In organisations, dynamic stability is effected by loose coupling of subsystems. Loose coupling means that units are not tied together by command and control but rather by lateral coordination and negotiation. Instead of static rules and regulations they are coordinated by principles. If an organisation has to adhere to highly conflicting stakeholder spheres or is exposed to very turbulent environments, loose coupling is the way to secure adaptive integration. One step beyond, Taleb’s concept of “Antifragility” adds the ideas of resilience and learning to the equation: Loose coupling prevents knock on effects in local crises (which is not to say it rules out solidarity and commitment for mutual support). If managed effectively, local crises can even become learning arenas for the whole organisation, thus making it stronger under stress (the idea of “Antifragility”). Finally, loose coupling supports organisational diversity, another key aspect of resilience – both in terms of sensory input filtering and problem solving. It is obvious that these positive effects require a careful structuring of the loose coupling mechanisms. Without the proper communication channels and practices, a loosely coupled system is not more sensitive but has fragmented vision. Without shared principles the negotiated coordination is not more stable but vulnerable to be blown apart when the weather gets rough.

Viability of Process Based (dynamic) Governance

How can representatives of semi-formal dynamic structures be mandated? Will the new model be super complicated, redundant and messy? Will institutional members dominate the network governance?

Process based representation is still a young field in the domain of organisational governance. The models we know feel ambiguous and seem to invite micro-political activity. Indeed, they do. An under-structured system (just as much as an over-structured one) is a great breeding ground for micro-politics. While the term has a somewhat problematic connotation in classical organisation design, micro politics is what self-organisation is all about: people taking charge and being politically active for their issues – in any part of the system, at any time in the process. The bad reputation of micro-politics may be due to our problematic relationship to power (I say “our” well aware that there are a bunch of people who have worked their way out of this relationship, as well as some who never entered it). If micro-politics is translated as tactical power play, we quickly conjure up images of greedy, self-interested mini Mafiosi and power hungry warlords. Yet, power – the ability for joint action – in its pure form is far from just that.

The term “dynamic governance” has found its most prominent use in describing the Sociocratic and Holacratic Models. The way I use the term here is compatible but not bound to the overall architecture these models imply. In the static governance approach, subsystems are represented by delegates or leaders in a higher level decision making body. These representatives may change in a given rhythm of tenure but the subsystems are more or less static (a membership body, a regional division or functional department etc.).

Dynamic governance in turn implies that the structuring of subsystems itself is fluid. The switch from a department to a project based logic has introduced such a turn towards fluidity in many contemporary organisations. The idea of Circles proposes another switch with even more far reaching implications as Circles are self-mandated rather than strategically launched. When projects or Circles are not just self-managed but are represented in higher level decision making bodies by delegates, we are looking at dynamic governance. Obviously such a practice causes challenges: Can any self-mandated circle demand representation or is there is filter? How does an individual delegate get the insights to contribute to overall decisions beyond his or her field of action? How does a governance body develop a collective problem solving potential if members are constantly changing? Can there be a fusion of static and dynamic governance and will this not lead to dominance of the long term (institutional) representatives?

The answers to these questions have to be developed case by case. One major point needs to be made though: What constitutes a “higher level” decision arena may just be the first idea we need to challenge. In the self-organising, cooperative models the bulk of power is handed to the individual units “on the ground”. The higher levels are not deciding on strategic frameworks or operational directives for the units (the “deductive policy approach”) but are arenas of coordination and negotiation in which these frameworks and directives emerge inductively. 

The Hollow Centre 

What if things drift apart? What if the Tragedy of the Commons takes hold of us? What if the Centre will be empty?

In the “Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Milan Kundera famously described two pathways of identity formation: “Addition” and “Subtraction”. The adding approach is about embracing traits, habits and things that define who I am: the guy with the Clark Gable moustache, the lady with the Siamese cat, the boy who can walk on his hands… I become who I am by adding features. The opposite approach – subtraction – is about stripping away (superficial) defining features in order to find my true self underneath. I look beyond the moustache, the cat, the acrobatic skill to find my naked truth, my innermost self. Kundera’s Nightmare: What if we find that after stripping away all the added layers that define us, underneath the last skin we find nothing? What if the core is hollow? 

The idea of Commons has been a fascinating and problematic one. Plainly defined, commons are the parts of a social system that don’t fall under any individual responsibility and ownership but are owned collectively. The most frequent experience with commons is that they are in bad shape: Piles of dirty dishes in the collective kitchen sink are the classic example, universal tax evasion is another. Economic theory has long assumed that Rational Choice is the foundation of human behaviour and has explained the “Tragedy of the Commons” as a logical consequence of unfavourable payoff structures (why should I do the dishes, if my costs for doing so are not matched by the promise of a personal surplus benefit?). It was not till quite recently that the discourse opened up to acknowledge another version of the story: Embeddedness. In 2009 Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Price in Economy for her work on Commons that actually work – most notably fishery communities in Scandinavia. Ostrom shows that commons are not destined to fail – however, their health depends on a small set of conditions which she laid out in eight principles:

Principles for Managing a Commons

  1. Define clear group boundaries: a membrane that signifies who is part of the community creates the container needed for the following principles to flourish. 
  2. Match rules to local needs and conditions: rather than universal regulations a locally crafted set of agreements has a higher effectiveness and identification potential.
  3. Ensure that those affected can participate in modifying the rules: when people know they can influence the rules of the game, they have a bigger commitment to honouring them.
  4. Make sure that self-organisation is respected by outside authorities: local self-regulation works best if the institutional environment honours the community’s sovereignty and does not interfere with it.
  5. Develop a system for peer monitoring: if no one witnesses me leaving my cup in the sink and no one acknowledges me doing the dishes, things are a lot harder than when these are public acts. 
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators: A rule system without consequences is a toothless tiger. 
  7. Provide accessible means for dispute resolution: rules protecting the common interest have the tendency to get in the way of individual interests. This tension needs a continuous negotiation arena. 
  8. Build responsibility in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire system: large groups don’t fare very well on collective responsibility and peer monitoring. Smaller sub groupings that are connected to form a bottom up hierarchy are much better suited for this.

In my experience, there is another condition for a flourishing Commons that is procedural and has less to do with rules then with engagement: The practice of “Commoning” is modulated by reinforcing feedback loops. If many members are engaging in the commons, it seems fun, rewarding and the thing to do. Livelihood breeds livelihood. The reinforcing feedback loop spirals up. If few people engage, those committed feel used and awkward and may dampen their engagement – decay breeds decay: the system spirals down. How can we hotwire and stimulate these cycles to spiral up rather than down? By offering regular but low threshold points of engagement. Not as a service and not just as a platform, but as a promise.


Dosing Activation Energy

Ways of Unfreezing a System and Sparking Transformation

Lewin’s Formula of Change

A basic wisdom of coaching and organization development says: if you feel exhausted from constantly putting energy into a process, you are probably doing the system’s work. And if you are doing the system’s work, the system is not really changing, it simply lets itself be moved around by you. This principle has saved me many times from getting overinvolved when people or organisations are not really ready to change.

Yet, every wisdom seems to only hold part of the truth. Sometimes you need to poke and push a system a bit before it can actually start to change on its own. Organisations need to be “unstuck” (or in Kurt Lewin’s words “unfrozen”) to move out of their comfort zones. What keeps them in their comfort zone can be described as a physical process – water fills the valleys of a landscape to find its dynamic equilibrium – or as a psychological process – people form habits that become their second nature (sometimes, of course, these habits don’t really represent the most sensible way to perform a system’s function, but that’s another story). This conservative nature of systems – whether we frame it as homeostasis or path dependence –  is a powerful force in organization dynamics. If we want to overcome it, we need to bring new energy into the game. Lewin has coined the famous equation: for change to happen, the cost of change needs to be outweighed by the product of three factors: suffering (the experience of what’s wrong with the current situation), vision (a taste of what a better situation would look like) and the awareness of concrete steps how to get from one to the other. If one of these ingredients is missing, the status quo will outweigh the energy for change and the system will stay more or less as it is (note: the three factors are multiplied, they don’t work additively, i.e. it is not enough to have more of one and none of the other – all three need to be there). 

I find this equation quite helpful when assessing an organisation’s readiness for change: you can sense pretty quickly, which ingredient is there and which one is missing. If you have an abundance of suffering and no vision, people are miserable, hopeless, depressed – and they may go on complaining forever like a frog that is slowly boiled and won’t jump out of the water. In this case, you need to work on the positive images. Don’t start with another problem analysis, start with appreciative inquiry. Don’t let a complaint stand, ask for a constructive alternative: what do youneed and wish for? 

On the other end of things, if there is an abundance of vision without suffering, the energy is high and heady. People love to shoot ideas and make great plans but you can tell, some grounding is missing in the conversations. The talk stays conceptual and the plane never takes off. In this case you need to make people discover the pain – in some instances this means making them aware of their own protective postures, sometimes it is about uncovering hidden suffering within the system (usually somewhere in the field, not the boardroom), in yet other cases it is simply the awareness of opportunity costs (we are flying below our potential) or pending risks (we are heading straight into a wall) that needs to be surfaced. 

Finally, if there is pain and vision but the third ingredient – clarity on first steps – is missing, things may move ahead, but most likely the maps and strategies used resemble part of the old system with all its limitations, often leading right back into the problem. In this situation our job as organization developers is to offer new paths. 

All of these interventions are far from hands off. In some cases they need to be delivered with a firm, even authoritative stance. Who likes to think about visions when they are indulging in suffering? Who likes to look at problems while playing on the swigs of grand ideas? And finally, who likes to give up a good old habit? A benevolent push is what’s needed here. However, the robust initial stance has to switch, once the system is unstuck and a new order emerges on the path towards the focused vision. We cannot push forever, we need to step back and let change unfold. Otherwise, we will end up doing the system’s work.

Lighting a Match

A few weeks back I had a conversation with my colleague Rudi about our longstanding difference on intervention approaches. While I like to work with a light, facilitative touch and favor homeopathic interventions, Rudi goes all in, working the field of micropolitics like a skilled chiropractor. While I am sometimes overly careful and stop at thawing rather than full unfreezing, he may not stop until the soup has come to boil. Boiling systems do all kinds of funny things. In the turmoil of a hotpot, emergent order is pretty hard to detect. That’s why I am skeptical of the “all in” approach.  

The case we were discussing involved an organization with over 100 employees in a pretty techy field of work. The process Rudi was driving as lead of a four consultant team was super intense: almost daily facilitated working group meetings on various levels, continuous massaging to tame the anxious leadership, heavy internal marketing for participation of a skeptical employee base and constant recalibrating to keep the process on rails. The experience was a mix of pushing through mud and riding a rodeo. We were sweating a lot. In my eyes, we were doing the system’s work – bringing so much heat into the organisation seemed unsustainable to me and way beyond the point of unfreezing. In response, Rudi introduced the notion of exothermic reactions and compared the intense process interventions to the act of lighting a fire. 

I had to dig a bit in my 10th grade chemistry backlog to bring back the context: feeding energy into a system can activate a reaction though which the system either settles in at a higher level, as energy is absorbed (“endothermic reaction”) or at a lower level, as energy stored in the system is released (“exothermic reaction”). 


Melting and evaporation represent endothermic reactions: as frozen water absorbs the heat from the sun in spring, it changes its physical state from solid to fluid. The resulting water is warmer and thus has a higher energy level than the initial ice. The chemical process of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen in order to produce hydrogen fuel is another such endothermic reaction. Inversely, burning and combustion are exothermic reactions: once a matter is exposed to a certain heat level, it ignites and gives off energy in the process. Both, endothermic and exothermic reactions require an initial activation energy – a push.

Projected onto the OD intervention arena, the endothermic approach is about unfreezing the system and thus allowing it a higher energy level to move into new states. In contrast, the exothermic approach is about igniting the system to initiate a reaction in which energy stored within is released as fuel for profound transformation.

In watching our OD process unfold, I am starting to believe that sparking exothermic reactions can indeed be an alternative to mere unfreezing. That said, I am also convinced that working with this approach requires attention to a couple of things: Firstly, we have to be sure that our tools are in order and fit the intervention arena. What if we keep striking a match with a worn head? Or if the sulfur scratcher is actually just sandpaper? Or – even worse – if we are trying to ignite wet wood? We may induce rubbing energy, but nothing will really take off from there. In that case we need to stop and either take a new match, look for another scratcher or try another approach altogether.

Secondly, if an exothermal reaction does take place, it can be explosive. Matches may be quite safe, fireworks, however, ought to only be ignited in the outdoors. Unless you really know what you are doing, and are clear, which kind of energy is stored in the system, you should not trigger it lightheartedly. Moreover, once an ignition has taken place, if you intend to have any part in facilitating the further path of development, you have to be ready to hold on tightly to manage the process and face the possibility of being thrown off in the resulting Rodeo. 

I need to think further about the question, if there is an ideal approach for different initial states and trajectories of organisations. Is there a diagnostic case indication for either the endothermic or the exothermic approach or is it just a matter of style preference by change agents and facilitators? Most likely, as usual, it is both. And in both cases the key question is: When do we stop pushing? At which point is the activation energy induced sufficient for the intended reaction to take place? When can we stop blowing as the fire is burning by itself? Blowing too hard for too long is one side of the risk: You substitute the systems work, you sweat and you may find out too late that you are trying to ignite wet wood. Blowing too little can be even worse: Fires die down. In cold air, water freezes over again. A stone that is not pushed far enough, will roll back down the mountain and we have to start over like Sisyphus. We need to recognize the reaction point. Our role at this point is to stay at the edge. To let go of pushing as much as possible in order to give the process space to emerge and unfold while being ready to step in in case it starts to die down or roll back. At this point the key issue is not content but dynamics.

Protective Postures

Organization Development Lessons from Physical Therapy

I remember the spring of 2017 as one of the physically most uncomfortable times of my adult life. While exercising in an outdoor gym in cold weather (not something I tend to have a habit of doing) my neck got stretched the wrong way and a disk slipped. I held out with scarfs and painkillers for a couple of months but as the pain seemed to become my daily companion, I eventually went on to see an orthopaedist. Looking at my MRI, the guy had not much more to say than „This is bad – we cannot fix it, but I can give you shots to take care of the pain“. I didn’t take the shots but instead asked him for a prescription for physical therapy. It landed me with an Osteopath, who was much less interested in the MRI than a bunch of other things: My posture, my digestion, my walking habits. His take on things was that most of my pain was muscular, derived from tensions and pulls my body produced to avoid dealing with whatever was wrong with my neck. Over time, these tensions had become chronic. His introduction to my treatment was blunt: “Mr. Knoth – you will not want to marry me after this. And it will not be better tomorrow, in fact it will probably be worse. But we have to make it worse in order for your body to heal itself”. The idea: A chronic patch does not heal. A problem must be acute for the body to take care of it in a productive way. 

It made sense to me. I consented to the proposed treatment and he went to business making my pain acute. The way he tortured trigger points in my neck and shoulders made me wonder about his Hippocratic Oath’s compatibility with the Geneva Convention. It was agony. And he was right, the day after and the day after that, things felt worse than before. Then, another day passed and the pain felt different – something transformed and slowly found a new order. We had 10 sessions in total. After the 8th, I was actually looking forward to the treatment and was enjoying the chats with my therapist about his approach and all the things there were to learn from it for my field of work. A few weeks after the last session, I did not feel any more pain in my neck. My body had found a solution. And it needed that push, the acuteness to stop working around the injury and go head on with the problem. Obviously, I still need to be mindful how I move and still need to practice and maintain a healthy muscle base on my back. But I am glad I didn’t stick with the pain shots.

So what is there to take away from this for the field of self-organisation development? 

Every system has work-arounds, patches and tensions that have become chronic. The German word “Schonhaltung” signifies a physical posture that is taken on in order to protect an injured or strained part of the body. Such a protective posture starts as a solution to avoid further pain and strain. In becoming chronic, the compensating habit may well end up as the primary problem – sometimes even more harmful than the initial injury. 

I have seen many teams with a protective posture relating to power. Any time the uncomfortable sides of power show up in daily business (as they do), these teams declare individual autonomy the highest value in order to neutralize power. Often this results in a power vacuum with problematic knock on effects. Other teams shelter themselves from topics like money, intimacy, spirituality or political convictions by tacitly declaring them taboo. Usually, there is something behind this. An injury, a micro trauma, a painful episode, maybe even a dramatic conflict in the history of the organisation that has settled in on a bearable workaround level to avoid raw pain. Like the defensive routines described by Chris Argyris, these workarounds hinder us from learning, growing and moving freely.

Chronic conflict, like chronic pain, will not heal by itself. In fact, if you want to heal a conflict that has settled in, you may have to reactivate it by making it acute. In effect, if there are protective postures lingering, instead of diffusing tensions, we need to catalyse conflict in order for the system to be able to work itself out.

If we accept that we need to address protective postures head on before moving deeper into self organisation, the question is: how do we do it without getting stuck?

For most people, going back into an old conflict is mad. It seems like a step back, a reopening of books that were tediously closed and safely sowed away. How safe or fragile it actually is sometimes only becomes obvious when triggers are being pushed. It can be difficult and risky to go on this journey without external support. As working to relieve muscular tensions may call for a physiotherapist, conflict work calls for an experienced facilitator. The most basic ingredient of conflict transformation is dialogue: honest sharing and rigorous listening. There are many formats this can be practiced in – Restorative Circles as presented by Dominic Barter, Deep Democracy as introduced by Arnold & Amy Mindell, and of course the needs based framing of Nonviolent Communication by Marshal B. Rosenberg, to name a few. Different methods have different charms and it will take another book – most likely not written by me – to honour them all. 

Beneath any methodology though, the critical ingredient of conflict work is as simple as challenging: to overcome the fear of conflict and face it as an opportunity to start losing our protective postures. Once the ground becomes soft again, the system may gracefully adapt and recreate itself with a free flow of energy – the quality of a healthy state of self organisation.

Locus of Control

Psychological Prerequisites and Outcomes of Self-Management

Fitness is a troubling concept to me. It is so obvious that it takes regular exercise to keep a healthy body, mind and spirit and yet it is so very hard to establish a discipline and continuous practice. It just doesn’t seem to fit into the day. And yet, people manage to live by it and stay fit. What is their secret? 

Fitness follows the dynamics of reinforcing feedback loops in two directions: if I am not moving for a while, my body feels weak and it becomes increasingly hard to put on my running shoes; I stay on the couch and open another beer – fitness spirals down. Once I do get myself up and work past the “can’t-do-it-s” and the inevitable starting-pains, the movement feels good, my body licks blood and I want to do more of it – fitness spirals up. 

There is something in organisational dynamics that mirrors this experience: Development – like movement – takes initial effort. Moreover, the commitment to continuous personal and organisational development (a defining trait of “deliberately developmental organisations”), requires investment and discipline. If you are caught up in the whirlwind of daily operations, focus on capacity building seems like a big stretch. However, once you are started on the path and committed practices of ongoing development are built, the cost-benefit ratio is turned on its head: development becomes part of the reward, not the cost. The spiral turns upwards.

So how do we hotwire the first part of the journey? How do we get moving whilst things are still on the downward spiral and the costs seem higher than the benefits? 

For me personally, this act of discipline-building needs a project format. A challenging target and a trajectory with an, at least symbolic start and finishing line. This fall, a friend poked me to sign up to the next Berlin Half Marathon. Six months to get in shape, to get out in the dark cold afternoons and run, defying the warm couch and the cool beer. Driven by a mix of guilt and curiosity I accepted the challenge. The first runs felt like hell – I was cursing my friend, myself and the idiotic idea of strain without necessity. Then, slowly, the spiral started to turn and by now I am actually looking forward to put on my running shoes. 

Internal Locus of Control as a Prerequisite for Self-Management

To tweak the cost benefit ratio of exercise some more, I usually listen to podcasts while running (why not get fit andsmart at the same time?). My current favourite is “Leadermorphosis” – a sequel of interviews by Lisa Gill exploring experiences with self-organising teams and progressive organisations. My last rainy November run was accompanied by her interviewing Doug Kirkpatrick on his learnings with the Teal posterchild company “Morning Star”. The interview outlines a number of key qualities needed for people to thrive in self-managed environments – among them initiative and curiosity, humility and a “contribution mindset”, tolerance of ambiguity and perseverance. I nod to all of them as much as I am curious about the last item on the list: an internal Locus of Control.

Locus of Control is a psychological concept relating to a person’s belief on the spectrum of being in the drivers’ seat vs. being driven by life’s forces: With an internal Locus of Control I attribute success and failure primarily to my own actions. With an external Locus, I attribute them to fate, chance or powerful external players – the bosses, the system, those “up there and out there”. Obviously, an environment where everyone is expected to make responsible choices in a self-managed way, an internal Locus of Control is a helpful quality. It is one of the key ingredients to “agency”. The interesting question is: Is it a static trait of personality or is it trainable? Doug Kirkpatrick’s answer to this is clear: We can make the decision to have an Internal Locus of Control: “People are the sum of their internal choices – how you chose to view the world, is a choice”. It took me a whole 3km lap around the Humboldthain Park to chew on this position. I would like to believe that he is right, but I don’t. In fact, I believe quite the opposite: We do not make the choice to have a specific Locus of Control – we experience it. 

How do you Change a Belief System?

Julian Rotter developed the concept of Locus of Control in the mid 1950s in the context of Social Learning Theory. A basic premise of this background is that behavioural and cognitive patterns – often labelled as “personality traits” – are not innate but continuously build as certain actions are strengthened and others are dampened by positive or negative experiences within our social environment – in the more classic language of Behaviourism: by reinforcements and punishments[1]. In effect, our belief system (including our Locus of Control) is neither a fixed trait nor simply a decision to see the world one way or the other: It is the intermediate outcome of a complex learning process.

Of course, not all of this process is purely individual. Locus of Control has a cultural determinant, a reciprocal relationship to social and educational status and, most notably, a developmental trajectory: as new-borns, our default setting is external. Quite realistically, we do not have a concept of being able to control much of anything in our world (even though a sleepless parent may feel quite differently about this). The experience and with it the belief of being in control is a learned one[2]. The process of developing an internal Locus of Control is facilitated by a responsive surrounding with consistent (predictable) frameworks and a supportive modelling of agency. Inversely, unpredictable environments, crises and frustrations beyond our control will bring about generalised feelings of helplessness and pull us back into an external Locus of Control. While it is evident that early development is quite crucial in shaping the foundations of our basic belief systems (and in some cases is so profound that its imprint is hard to reverse), the learning process is a continuous one – it goes on from family to school and peer group settings continues at the workplace and more generally in the cultural and social frames we move in. Eventually, the developmental bracket also has a final decrescendo, as with old age the Locus of Control tends to shift back toward the external side.

Technically, neither a purely external nor a purely internal Locus of Control can be considered reasonable. The belief of being in total control of one’s life can be just as unhealthy (and unrealistic) as assuming total helplessness. Both are somewhat delusional beliefs that tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies (in other words: reinforcing feedback-loops), with quite different effects. Implications of an internal Locus of Control are higher performance, motivation, better overall health and lower depression rates, to name a few. If faced with the choice which self-fulfilling prophecy to engage in, the belief in agency thus seems to be more favourable than the belief in helplessness. 

From this perspective it is indeed a matter of choice what we focus on: the partially empty or the partially full reality of the glass. We cannot control everything, but we can decide to look at the things that we can control – and whatever we give attention to, grows. We can work on our resilience and coping skills and learn from crises and mistakes to be better equipped the next time. This far I am willing to go along with the NLP-ish idea of “rewiring ourselves” and with Doug Kirkpatrick’s notion of “choosing how we see the world”. 

However, there is also a structural side to this: Seeing that adaptation is one of the key features of human nature, it is evident, that any social systems will produce a corresponding mind-set quite quickly (a similar point has been made by McGregor’s Theory X / Theory Y research). If we want to bring out the positive effects of an internal Locus of Control, we need to structure opportunities to positively experience agency into our social environments and processes. These experiences may not become generalised immediately, but as they accumulate they can start to form the foundational patterns of a new belief system. The dynamics of this process are similar to those in trust building: Just like trust is built on agreements that are kept[3], an internal Locus of Control is built on positive experiences of agency. Just like agreements that are broken will shatter trust, an internal Locus of Control is shattered if we are in charge but not in control. More importantly, if no agreements are ever made, they have no chance to be kept and in effect, no trust can ever be built. Translation: the building of an internal Locus of Control requires opportunities to show up and step up. And yet, another feedback loop: The process starts with small experiments and – if those are successful – spirals upwards. 

To sum up these thoughts: An internal Locus of Control may not be in everyone’s backpack at the outset of the journey to self-management – it definitely will be one of the great fruits to pick along the way. 

[1] To be fair, Rotter used the Behavioural language but his ideas can be seen as an adapter piece to the subsequent cognitive revolution.

[2] On that note: recent developments in neuroscience have shown that the notion of “learned helplessness” actually has it backwards – our most basic answer to stress is freezing, not flight or fight.

[3] Thanks to Wolfgang Kötter for this great line!

Guerilla Gardening Approach

Changing Organisational Culture from the Periphery

Organisational Culture is a strange creature. Some people say you cannot change it, you just have to deal with it like the climate zone you live in. Others make the case for “Cultural Engineering” – the controlled development of mindsets, belief systems and ways of relating. Others again advocate for heroic acts of “Transformative Change”: Walk in through the front door, proclaim a new era, introduce a new generative image and watch the old times crumble while you build a new empire on a new narrative. Simple as that? Well, our history books make it look simple because in 4000 years of charted leadership practice we do find hundreds of instances of such transformative change that make an impressive case. What we don’t find are the millions of instances of social change that entered through the back door. If we use the main entrance to proclaim cultural change, we have to make it quite a robust entry. The problem with robust entries is, they come at the price of sensing. There must be a better way. 

The first time I heard the Guerilla Gardening metaphor used in the context of organization development was in 2011 at the “oe tag”, an annual OD practitioners’ conference SOCIUS hosts in Berlin. The conference focused on issues of organizational culture and two colleagues, Anne Kerwani and Kerstin Giebel, offered a workshop proposing a subversive approach to cultural development.  Rather than changing culture from the top with a great proclamation, their key idea was to look for the peripheral spaces in the organisation and to hatch practical examples of the desired future. I have played and worked with this idea in the last years, got excited and frustrated, and came to be a strong believer in the Guerilla Gardening approach.

Let’s start with the origins of subversive urban development. Here is a step by step guide to Guerilla Gardening: 

  1. Find an uncared-for peripheral piece of land, a wall, a tree – best in your own neighbourhood.
  2. Decide what you want to plant and check if your choice makes sense. Tough plants and fast growing flowers are a good start.
  3. It’s more fun together – find partners. Talk to friends and neighbors.
  4. Build your garden. Possibly you need to bring some fertile soil and definitely water the plants after planting.
  5. It may be wise to protect your garden from the challenges of city life, possibly with an improvised little fence against dogs and feet.
  6. Care for your garden with love! Go regularly and water it.
  7. If things go differently than planned, don’t lose faith! Talk to residents! Most of them will like your action and at least give you moral support. Some may even join you!


I don’t think I even need to translate this little instruction into OD language as it is so obvious. 

So what happens then? How does the Guerilla Garden transform the system? There are a number of versions of this process: 

Keimform – Lessons from Neo-Marxism

Neo-Marxist Theory has coined the term “Keimform” (seed-form) as a social practice that works within the functional logic or “grammar” of the dominant system, but undermines its social logic or value base. Peer Commons and Share Economies are such examples: they run smoothly within the market logic of supply and demand but they undermine the idea of private ownership of means of production (well, at least they should). If under the condition of a general crisis of the dominant system they come out of their niche, they have the potential to turn into dominant practice – the story is changed. In organisational context, agile models can be described as such “Trojan Horses” as they function under the premise of lean and efficient management while at the same time introducing measures of self-organisation and autonomy (of course, this sword has two edges: it is equally possible that Agile is imported with the motive to strengthen self-management while actually effecting a push towards new performance pressure). 

Niche-Regime Interaction – Lessons from Transition Management 

Another way to conceptualise the broader impact of local experiments is the Niche-Regime Interaction proposed in Transition Management, a conceptual framework that was developed to describe the transition towards Sustainability widely coined “the great transformation”. The transition management model focuses on three interacting system levels: 

  • the Landscape Level (Macro: broader trends of society and the relevant system environment), 
  • the Regime Level (Meso: dominant structures, cultures and established practices of the system) and 
  • the Niches Level (Mico: experiments and innovative alternative practices within the system underground). 
mage: J. Broerse, VU University Amsterdam (

Transition Management assumes that Regimes act with an evolutionary logic, filtering out unsuccessful experiments while gradually selecting and incorporating useful innovations into their existing set of practices. Niches are safe environments in which such innovations can grow, sheltered from the selection process. Pressure from the landscape is the key factor defining how “receptive” (or vulnerable) the regime is to niche innovations (i.e. will the innovation add to, fix, tickle or disrupt the regime?). Moments of high receptiveness are windows of opportunity, in which radical innovations can become drivers of change. When accumulated to a critical mass and aligned across different subsystems, they can transform or even replace the regime (F.W. Geels, J. Schot / Research Policy 36 (2007) 399–417).

The Guerilla Gardening approach can be analysed though the lens of this model as a niche-regime interaction. To be an effective pathway of change, three conditions need to apply: 

  • The local experiment needs to be sheltered long enough from performance and control pressure to become a coherent new model practice with a “tried and tested” feel.
  • The moment of pitching the new practice as a model solution needs to coincide with a window of opportunity (i.e. an established routine doesn’t deliver answers to a new challenge or external pressure)
  • The new practice needs to be integrated and accumulated with other innovative practices in order to effect a critical impulse in transforming (at least a part of) the system. 

Two Loops – Lessons from Systems Theory

A system change map that fits with the guerrilla gardening idea is Margaret Wheatley’s Two Loop Model developed in the Berkana Institute. The model describes the dynamics and roles in a transition from one system (in Transition Management terms: one “regime”) to another. Wheatley proposes that all systems go through a rise, peak and a decline phase – in larger societal systems this may happen over the course of 250 years, in organisational settings eras marked by a specific paradigm may last just a few years. A system at the top of its lifecycle is maintained by “Stewards”. Underneath the peak (in transition management terms: within the “Niches”), pioneers are stepping out and innovations are born. As these islands get connected and strengthened they may become the seeds of an alternative system. Networking and nourishing roles are relevant in this process. It may coincide with the decline of the old system (as seen in the degeneration of the Roman Empire: not always a pretty sight). If we don’t want the old system to simply collapse and vanish, hospicing and composting roles are needed to harvest. For the transfer of old to new regimes, there needs to be an illuminating role to light the landing grounds of the new system and a transitioning role to guide the move.

Image: Berkana Institute

In organisations we witness the two loops of transition in times of environmental disruption but also in the crises going along with developmental phase changes. For example, in the transition from the Pioneer to the Collective Phase, the collective impulse forms as a new (sometimes rebellious, sometimes reformist) subculture while the established leadership model may still be strong and in place. The progressive decline of the old and the strengthening of the new are intertwined processes feeding off each other. At some point, when the new model is strong and coherent enough to be trusted, the system is ready to transition.

Case Window 1

The Guerilla Gardening Approach takes patience. When I first applied it, I was so taken by the idea that I expected magic. We introduced the concept to our client, an educational facility with 50 staff suffering from a corporate culture issue around trust and feedback on all levels. The idea was taken – the process of discovering dysfunctional patterns and potential building blocks of a positive future took off with good momentum, then when it got to developing the guerilla gardening initiatives, the process got a little stuck. People were disappointed with the scale of things: a staff lunch, a conflict resolution rep with no formal mandate, a feedback questionnaire to tackle quality gaps – these ideas seemed petty, some of the plants dried up, some were trampled on; and yet, some survived. It was not until much later that we realized how the process had made us all understand the patterns, the difficulties and the visions in the organization much better. A second loop produced richer results. In the third year the organization formulated a new value statement that was not about displaying politically correct buzz words but outlined inherent struggles the team and leadership pledged to work on in a collaborative manner. The culture had changed – not by central proclamation, but by little harmless experiments at its periphery.

Case Window 2

I am sitting in Brighton after a workshop with The Dragonfly, a fluid organisation facilitating social and self-development through creative arts. The tough nut to crack here is the role of the founder who – despite all efforts to create a collective culture – continues to be the heart of things. As usual, the reasons why it is so difficult to transition is not just his change of roles but equally the mixed emotions going along with the challenge of stepping up as a team. Time and again, the interlocking dynamics play out: as long as the leader is leading, the collective has no real need or chance to prove itself. As long as the team is not proven, the leader will not relax into letting go. Everyone sees this and understands this dilemma. And still, there is no easy way to break out of it. This could go on for a long time…

My suggestion here is a guerrilla gardening project: jointly identify and create islands of shared responsibility in peripheral spaces. Play around, learn, connect them and nurture them. When the time has come: illuminate them and facilitate the transition to the collective mode. This transition will require a powerful ritual and a sensitive hospicing, including honouring and acknowledgement of the roles that are ending. It is not a reform project. No one is stepping into anyone else’s shoes. It is a transformation to a new organisation with a new story and new roles.  

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.