Monthly Archives: January 2013

Inspiration for an organisational permaculture

Permaculture sprung from a diverse set of influences such as ecology, systems thinking, local horticultural practices and ethnobotany (as permaculturist Elaine Solowey puts it, “Permaculture is a modern, codified system of traditional knowledge”).

So when we begin talking about what organisational permaculture might be, there is a similar set of influences to draw upon. Even though they do not use the term permaculture, a lot of people have thought and written about organisations as whole, living systems that can be designed but not controlled.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of the ones that I’ve come across so far:

Chaordic organizations
“Chaordic” is a term coined by Dee Hock, the founder of VISA International, to describe organizations that exist at “the edge of chaos”, and thus combine chaos and order in a way similar to how life and complex adaptive systems work. Dee Hock has explores these ideas in the book One From Many, which also describes how the VISA corporation came to be and how it is inspired by these concepts.

Sociocracy is mode of organisational governance developed by the Dutch educator Kees Boeke inspired by Quaker consensus decision-making processes. These ideas were further developed by Boeke’s student Gerald Endenburg who combined them with systems thinking in the electrical engineering company he took over from his parents in the 1970s. The book We The People by John Buck and Sharon Villines gives a good overview of the basics of sociocratic organisation.

Learning organisations
Learning organisations is often attributed to management researcher Peter Senge, whose book The Fifth Discipline uses systems thinking to integrate individual, team and organisational learning. The core point being that an organisation is never static, but must continually develop and learn in order to respond to external pressures.

Communities of Practice
A term coined by educational theorists Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave, a Community of Practice is a group of people who share a craft and/or a profession and use that group to share information and experiences to develop personally and communally. I used this theoretical framework a fair bit in my Master’s Thesis on the Ubuntu Linux community.

Cooperative Systems Design
Cooperative systems design is new term invented by Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler in his book The Penguin and the Leviathan. He describes it as “a new area of research at the intersection of experimental economics, organizational sociology, political science, and evolutionary biology.”

Viable Systems
The Viable Systems Model (VSM) was developed by the british systems thinker Stafford Beer in the 1970s. A viable system is any system organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment. An accessible introduction to the VSM is available here.

Resilient organizations
“Resilience” is the new, hot term following “sustainability”. The group of ecologists and systems thinkers that collaborate through the Resilience Alliance defines resilience as “the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes”. They apply this notion to organisations in their book Resilience Thinking.

Living companies
Life-long Royal Shell employee Arie De Geus explored what makes businesses thrive in the long term in his book The Living Company. The core notion being that you should perceive the company as a living, learning being that is intimately connected to and dependent on the surrounding environment.

Community Organizing
“Organizing” is the oft-used shorthand for the community organizing model developed by Saul Alinsky and described in his book Rules For Radicals. It has been an effective tool in political organizing for elections, labour struggles and in local communities since the 1930s. It has since been expanded by Marshall Ganz.

The Cynefin framework
Cynefin (pronounced Ky-nev-in) is a Welsh word meaning something like “a habitat that influences us in more ways than we can understand”. It is used to describe a decision making framework developed by management thinker Dave Snowden. Building on the notion that organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems, Cynefin provides a framework to help leaders understand the nature of a given situation (simple, complicated, complex or chaotic) and how best to make decisions under those circumstances. A good introduction to Cynefin can be found in this Harvard Business Review article.

Organizing without organizations
“Organizing without organizations” is the tagline from internet theorist Clay Shirky‘s book Here Comes Everybody. In it he describes how the Internet is challenging the way organisations work simply by allowing for what Shirky calls “ridiculously easy group-forming”. Now that any web page is a potentially community, the transaction costs of bringing together a group of people have plummeted. Shirky is a good source for exploring the consequences of that change.

That’s my list so far. I’m sure there’s a lot more interesting perspectives out there in this field. So if you know of any, please share them in the comments below.

Organisational permaculture

I recently joined a new group on Facebook called Organizational Permaculture. Dan Mezick, who started the group, defines organisational permaculture as

… a permaculture approach to elevating levels of team and group learning in organisations. It’s taking advantage of what is already there, and using it. It leverages the often ignored, underutilized, undervalued, abandoned, or otherwise unleveraged human cognition that is readily available to power a task at the group level.

So far, the Facebook group has been in a state of incubation, bringing together a lot of interesting people but with no active discussion. So, I thought I’d get the ball rolling by sharing my thoughts on what organisational permaculture promises to be.

I first came across the term permaculture on the blog of Euan Semple, a consultant specialising in the social web. In a post he linked to a documentary called “A farm for the future” by the British filmmaker Rebecca Hosking. The film introduces some of the environmental challenges that modern farming faces, and permaculture as an approach to solve these challenges:

Linking to the film, Semple remarked:

What struck me watching this wonderful film was the degree to which arrogance and fixation for imposed order was what got us into trouble in the first place and how much humility and willingness to learn from apparent chaos is what will get us out of it. Any parallels you may draw with organisational life are totally intended.

Those words stayed with me: How can the ideas of permaculture be applied to our organisations?

I’ve been ruminating on that question on and off since then. And I am excited to find that others are struggling with the same question.

See, the thing is, just as modern farming is proving to be unsustainable, so are our organisations. They aren’t helping to solve the problems we face. Instead, they allow these problems to grow bigger and more difficult to solve. Governments, banks, schools, NGOs, corporations. All of these organisations are as much part of the problem as they are part of the solution when it comes to the global challenges we face such as climate change, financial crisis, education reform, poverty and inequality, healthcare and security.

But this is not because these organisations are broken. As the American organisational researchers Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky have observed, “the reality is that any social system (including an organisation or a country or a family) is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way.” Or as their colleague Jeff Lawrence puts it, “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organisation, because every organisation is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it gets.”

This is amply obvious if we draw the parallels between our organisations and modern agriculture as Semple suggests:

1. Both focus on measurable short-term gains
Just as our farmers only tend to consider this year’s harvest, most organisations don’t plan more than a few years ahead. Companies are expected to deliver profits every quarter. Public sector organisations are expected to show increased efficiency. In all cases, the focus are on short-term metrics that can be measured easily, while disregarding intangible factors (as organisational expert W. E. Deming said, “You can only measure 3% of what matters”).

2. Both disregard long-term sustainability
This focus on the short term means that both farmers and organisations ignore the stock of the resources on which they depend. Farmers don’t recycle nutrients in the soil, ignoring the fact that gradually this will make the it poorer and poorer. Similarly, organisations tend to consider their employees as “human resources” that can be expended, ignoring the mental and physical illnesses that such exhaustion leads to.

3. Both believe that control is prerequisite for efficiency
The central task of farmers and managers is to achieve compliance. Farmers seek to dominate their fields and crops through plowing, artificial fertilisers, pesticides. Managers seek to control the work of their employees through various tools such as Management by Objectives, quotas and incentive pay. The fundamental notion is that all desired actions are the results of such control. And that control is the only way to achieve the predictability and efficiency necessary to secure production and profits despite varying circumstances.

4. Both prefer a single way of doing things
In order to make it easier to obtain and maintain such control, both farmers and organisation opt for simple one-size-fits-all solutions. Diversity is considered a problem to be solved. Farmers prefer huge fields of a single crop such as wheat and corn in order to make it easier to manage, no matter what the local landscape or environmental context might look like. Organisations prefer to use the same processes throughout in order to make it easier to optimize, no matter what the local culture and customs might dictate. Such optimization for one-size-fits-all not only tends to be a bad fit, it also leaves the whole much more vulnerable to disruption.

5. Both believe that all problems can be solved by adding more energy
Farmers and managers emphasize technical or mechanical problem solving, as if their farms and organisations were machines to be fixed. The simpler the machine is, the easier it is to fix. And fixing it usually means adding more external energy. Energy usually means more money. For farms, this would be money for buying bigger machines and using more fertilizer. For organisations, it would be more funds for new employees, new projects and new technology. Unfortunately, just as adding more artificial fertilizer just exacerbates the problem of under-nourished soil, adding more money to an organisation rarely solves the problem but often just reinforces the structures that created the problem in the first place.

I find that organisational permaculture promises a different approach. A way to build organisations that enable people learn, develop and flourish together. Organisations that allow people to be autonomous, purposeful and self-assured. Organisations that make people healthier and happier by their being part of it. Organizations that are resilient and which will be able to help solve rather than exacerbate the challenges that we face.

I hope that this group will provide a fertile space to share ideas on how to develop such an approach.

On symptoms and illnesses

In December, I attended a seminar run by Vibe Strøier, one of the leading lights in organizational psychology in Denmark. For the past 25 years, she has worked as a consultant, helping large organisations deal with organisational change.

As she described her experiences and her approach (which I might write more about another time), it struck me how much of her work focused on helping managers and their subordinates cope with changes that they hadn’t had any say in. Put in another way: She helped people deal with the manifold stresses and pressures that were caused by the structures of authority in which they were embedded.

For instance, she used Heidegger’s notion of Thrownness, which describes how we are thrown into a world full of things that we have no way of influencing, to help middle managers accept the limitations of their position — under pressure by managers, subordinates and customers — and focus on the things that they can actually change instead. In a way, it is quite similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, which has spread through its association with Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would seem that the working life of a mid-level manager in a large public sector organisation is comparable to the personal crisis associated with something like alcoholism. Which is sad, indeed. Because that would imply that it is just as impossible for a manager to change the power structures in which he is placed, as it is for an alcoholic to not be an alcholic any more (and as they say, once you’re an alcoholic, you can stop drinking alcohol but you’ll always remain an alcoholic).

Strøier clearly says that what stresses people out in big organisations is having to deal with an opaque power structure that can (and often does) turn their working life upside down without giving them any say in the matter. But even so, she focuses on helping people cope with having to work under the existing conditions (presumably because she finds that it is infeasible to change these underlying power structures).

To me, this poses some fundamental questions:

  • Are you are working to cure the symptoms or the illness?
  • Are you dealing with the underlying structures causing these afflictions or the immediate consequences that they cause?
  • Is it better to be pragmatic and give up an idealistic attempt at changing the bigger system in order to alleviate the immediate suffering?
  • When do you make a stand and fight to make big change happen, and when do you settle for small improvements?

Thinking about this, I find that this is something of a false dichotomy: You can fight to make big changes happen, but most often, what you will get is a lot of small improvements. The key is in the compromise. As Saul Alinsky wrote:

To the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. It is making the deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory. If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise for 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead.

A free and open society is an ongoing conflict interrupted periodically by compromises — which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum. Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be “compromise”.

But the thing is: To get even those 30 percent ahead, you have to start out unreasonable. You have to demand it all. You have to go for the big change. If you just accept things as they are and try to make them tolerable, they will never improve. In fact, most likely, they will gradually get worse.

Four Yorkshiremen in reverse

Today, I came across an interesting blog post by Dave Snowden who apparently is something of an expert when it comes knowledge management (whatever that is).

Snowden writes about the dangers of rose tinting — that is trying to map out a route to some ideal future instead of working in the present and relating to the real problems at hand.

His point being that idealists tend to be unable to embrace dissent and learn from it, and so they seek and encourage confirmation rather than conflict. That means that when a group of idealistic, like-minded people get together, it can easily devolve into a sort of Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch in reverse, where they encourage each other to develop bigger and bigger utopian fantasies that can encompass all needs and suggestions and thus avoid any dissent.

Drawing of the four Yorkshiremen found on

I’ll be the first to admit to having a utopian bent, so for me this is a welcome warning. I do try to be realistic about the scope of what I’m doing. I find the mental image of “Four Yorkshiremen In Reverse” to be a rather powerful reminder of the danger of such rose tinting.

Snowden goes on to say that you won’t change things by lecturing people on how old fashioned their thinking is. This is similar to Euan Semple’s credo that “to rescue someone is to oppress them.”

Instead of lecturing, Snowden suggests that you put people “into situations and give them tools where old ways of thinking are not sustainable and they have to act differently. If they work it out for themselves it’s sustainable.”

That is certainly something to ponder.

The web as ecosystem

I recently finished reading Steven Johnson’s book Future Perfect. Being in the know as one of the “peer progressives” he lauds in the book, I found many of his points to be familiar. And all in all, I didn’t enjoy the book that much.

But there was one part that stuck with me. It was Johnson’s description of the web as a productive and interconnected ecosystem:

Ecologists talk about the “productivity” of an ecosystem, which is a measure of how effectively the ecosystem converts the energy and nutrients coming into the system into biological growth.

A productive ecosystem, such as a rain forest, sustains more life per unit of energy than an unproductive ecosystem, such as a desert. We need a comparable yardstick for information systems, a measure of a system’s ability to extract value from a given unit of information.


The overall increase in information productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years.

Think about it this way:

Let’s say it’s 1995, and you are cultivating a page of “hot links,” as we used to call them, to interesting discoveries on the Web. You find an article about a journalism lecture at Columbia University and you write up a description with a link to the Columbia website that promotes the talk.

The information value you have created is useful exclusively to two groups: people interested in journalism who happen to visit your page, and the people maintaining the Columbia page, who benefit from the increased traffic.

Fast-forward to the present: You arrive at the lecture and check in at Foursquare, and tweet a link to a description of the talk.

Set aside the fact that it is now much easier to make those updates via your smartphone, compared with the cumbersome process of updating your website circa 1995. What happens to the information you send out?

It’s the same number of characters, with the same message: I’m going to this lecture tonight. But the ultimate trajectory of that information is radically more complex than it would have been fifteen years before.

For starters, it goes out to friends of yours, and into your Twitter feed, and into Google’s index. The geo-data embedded in the link alerts local businesses who can offer your promotions through Foursquare; the link to the talk helps Google build its index of the Web, which then attracts advertisers or the topic of journalism itself.

Because that tiny little snippet of information flows through a more dense and diverse network, by checking in at the lecture you are helping your friends figure out what to do tonight; you’re helping Columbia promote its event; you’re helping a nearby bar attract more customers; you’re helping Google organize the Web; you’re helping people searching for information about journalism; you’re helping journalism schools advertising on Google to attract new students.

When text is free to flow and recombine, new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases.

That is as good an argument for a free and open internet as you’re bound to find, I think.