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.


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.

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.  

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.