Minimum Viable Structure
When I was seven years old I found a violin under the Christmas tree. I had not wished for it, but it did not seem odd, seeing that all my family members played instruments and classical music was generally considered part of a healthy diet in our world. I started to learn and practice – painful for everyone at first – worked my way into a reasonable technique and 10 years later was playing in orchestras and making money with gigs at weddings and funerals. With 18 I had enough of it all. The classical music scene with the predefined scores, the stiff posture, the strive for precision all seemed stifling to me. I put the violin down and wanted to breathe some fresher air. A couple of years later my friend Alex asked me what I thought of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Greppelli and if I cared to try out some Swing. With some doubt I followed the invitation and felt like I had just discovered music for the first time. Jazz improvisation became my passion of the next years and led me to many great encounters and experiences in living rooms, basement studios, street corners and bars wherever I lived. As a runaway from musical structure I never concerned myself too much with the rules of the Jazz game but simply played along. But of course – even in sometimes minimal ways – these structures exist, and they are part of what makes Jazz work. There are rythms, there are keys and chord progressions with their scales and of course there is the body of tunes in the Real Book that most good Jazz musicians have at least partially inhaled. And finally there is a codex that structures how in a session soloing and comping, individual lead presence and background support are played out. If everyone is aware or at least sensitive to these conventions and even in moments of highest experimentation can relate back to them, Jazz flows. If players don’t know or ignore those conventions, if the structural openness is abused for ego play, excessive pattern breaking or stage hogging, that flow can quickly break down.
The Tyranny of Structurelessness
As it seems, structure is not a thing we can decide to live without. It simply is. What we can do is to be conscious about how we design and move within structures. In the early 1970s Jo Freeman came forward with a controversial critique of the model of the “Structureless Group” within the feminist movement. In her widely received essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” Freeman argues that the absence of formal structures and hierarchies only masks inevitable informal power dynamics.
“A ‘laissez faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. (…) As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules”. (Freeman, 1971)
Freeman’s leading argument is as simple as convincing: While informal power implies no obligation of responsibility to the group at large, formalized authority always comes with its flipside – accountability. It is the same argument Max Weber made in regards to bureaucracy: The merit of bureaucracy, as Weber points out, is that it suspends arbitrary domination and substitutes it with rational power, in effect limiting the abuse of power, privilege and discrimination. If things go the way they should, a well-structured system couples power with accountability.
While embracing this point we have to recognize that the notion of bureaucracy also has a flip side largely unrelated to the idea of personal domination: structures are by nature conservative and inhibit the flow of emergence – no matter if we are talking about formal hierarchies or formalised configurations of distributed authority such as Holacracy.
There is a suspicion about formalised structures in wide circles of the liberal and critical spectrum: Structure kills freedom, stifles initiative and is generally the antithesis of self-determination. This notion is expressed in an article published in in reaction to Freeman’s position in the Anarchist Library under the headline “The Tyranny of Tyranny”:
„What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life“. (Cathy Levine, 1979)
I find some resonance here with my teenage claustrophobia in the classical music world. However, I also acknowledge the value of the rules of the game in Jazz. As Ralph Stacey puts it: „It is easy to misunderstand the meaning of self-organization and the emergent collective order it produces. In the context of a human organization, people tend to equate self-organization with empowerment or worse a free-for-all in which anyone can do anything, leading to anarchy… self-organization is not a free-for-all, in fact it is the opposite of a free-for-all“. (Stacey, 2010, p. 64)
Attractors in Self-Organising Systems
From a system dynamics point of view, structures are a two-sided affair: they stabilize a system and at the same time lock its behavior, slowing down adaptation and open development. As emergent patterns they are the outcome of self-organisation, as fixed configurations they are its enemy. Let’s look at how this works.
Self-organisation – in a system dynamics perspective – is the process by which order arises out of local interactions between parts of an initially disordered open system. As this definition shows, we are neither talking about a deliberate or even conscious act of design nor about a specific resulting constellation. Whether we are looking at natural or social phenomena, the process of self-organisation follows system dynamics. Which is not to say it can’t be tampered with: Just like applied physics is exploring ways to influence self-organisation in systems of energy and matter (e.g. to create laser beams), biology is exploring ways to shape pattern-building within bacteria colonies and social science is looking for ways to influence the self-organisation of minds, groups and societies.
To understand the formation of behavior patterns in open nonlinear systems, we need to familiarize ourselves with the notion of attractors. An attractor marks a specific meaningful area in the map of possible system states. The complete map is called the “state space”. The attractor describes the set of states within this space towards which the system will naturally gravitate. This may be a single equilibrium point (such as the lowest point of a basin collecting water), a line (such as the orbit of a planet circling the sun) or even a continuously changing path (like an icecream truck moving though a neighborhood – poetically called a “strange attractor” in systems theory). Depending on the strength of the attractors, the system espouses more or less “noise”, i.e. system states that are not part of the attractor set and thus blur the “mainstream” behavioural pattern (sidenote: such noise can be considered a prerequisite for innovation). In Jazz one of the main attractors is the chord progression in use – it defines a set of scales containing tones that build the backbone of the music. Players can stray off this path and use tones off the scale to build creative tension, if overstretched this will flip into dissonant disorder.
As an open system exchanges energy with its environment, it continuously receives impulses that challenge and disturb its order. Internal feedback loops of the system impact these disturbances in different ways: while negative feedback loops protect the system equilibrium (by dampening outside impulses), positive feedback loops amplify them and thus invite escalating system change. The moment a new attractor enters the system stage is called “bifurcation point”. In such a splitting instant, two stable sets of states become possible. The system now either changes direction or branches out into differentiated behaviors, i.e. becomes more complex.
The idea of minimum viability originates from Eric Ries’ notion of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which, “has just those features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more“. A transfer to the realm of social systems has been proposed by proponents of the Agile movement with the concept of Minimum Viable Bureaucracy (MVB), which is described as a way of having just enough process to make things work, but not so much as to make it cumbersome. The idea of Minimum Viable Structure goes one step further in questioning not only processes but stable configurations altogether. It asks, how much fluidity we are able and willing to live with and where we need scaffolding structures to maintain a certain order and action potential. Just like scales don’t prescribe which note to play on which timing, trellises don’t prescribe the way plants grow – they merely offer a supportive playing field for fruitful and productive growth..
„Emergence by Design refers to what could be described as a higher-order design: a design of systems that allow us to employ emergence rather than to either try to design it away or to see it as an imperfection of our predictive techniques. We’re stuck with emergence, so let’s figure out how to use it! The idea is to aim design at the structures that direct the dynamics of the system rather than to the outcomes themselves: we refer to these structures as scaffolding structures“
We can distinguish two relevant sets of scaffolding structures: Core Principles that lay the foundation for practices to be in line with the collective value base. And Adapter Practices that base on agreements to ensure compatibility and smooth collaboration within the system.
The first set of necessary scaffolding structures relates to the integrity of the collective value base and a differentiation to the environment. Attractors are not necessarily part of a deliberate design effort within the oranisation. They just as often derive from the embeddedness in higher order systems so that for instance cultural norms or dominant strategies in our market can influence behavioral dynamics on the organizational level. Deliberately designed structures can shelter organisations from those environmental forces and establish new attractors in line with a desired internal reality. A version of this argument is put forward with the Operating System Canvas created and shared by The Ready. For any function we don’t consciously design, we will most likely „inherit“ the dominant solution of our environment. If we don’t deliberately design needs based compensation, we will probably resort to the “normal” performance based pay models. If we don’t deliberately install a rotating or distributed power structure, we will most likely inherit the usual leadership bottlenecks. And so on. So while not everything has to be codified, it makes sense to focus on a number of design aspects that have a high relevance for our cause and set of values. The foundations of these practices become codified in the core principles or (in the language of Holocracy) the Meta Agreements of the organisation.
The second set of necessary scaffolding structures in self organised systems is more functional: it relates to the compatibility of efforts within the system. As one of the core qualities of self-organisation is a high level of autonomy of actors and sub units, it is imperative to have standards and processes that structure the interplay of those units
- Where is information stored?
- What are coordination touchpoints and times of joint deliberation?
- How are units and roles mandated a are they held accountable to their commitments?
- What are standards an internal service or product must have in order to be usable?
- What are decision processes when more than one unit is involved?
- How doe we define shared key concepts and metrics?
These and more questions need answers for a loosely coupled system of units to work together synergetically and smoothly.