trash-anarchySeveral of my key solutions to making our world better — Natural Enterprises, True Collaboration and Model Intentional Communities most notably — rely on the ability of groups of people to self-manage more effectively than large hierarchical organizations are, or can be, managed top-down. Derek Woolverton over at Technical Difficulties…  commented on my post on WL Gore (“no ranks, no titles, no bosses“) that self-managed organizations, if they don’t have any rules, can be much worse than badly-managed ones. He sent me a link to a manifesto written back in 1970 by Jo Freeman called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, lamenting how the women’s liberation movement of that day had degenerated into anarchy, cliquishness and petty politics for exactly that reason. Her article lays out these seven principles of democratic structuring for self-managed organizations:

  1. Delegate specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures, after they’ve expressed an interest or willingness to do it. Don’t just let people choose their own jobs.
  2. Require all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to all those who selected them. The group retains the ultimate say over how the power is exercised.
  3. Distribute authority among as many people as is reasonably possible, to prevent monopoly of power and encourage learning and consultation.
  4. Rotate tasks among individuals often but not too often, so people learn many jobs adequately and to avoid turf wars.
  5. Allocate tasks using objective criteria: competency, interest, responsibility, and opportunity to learn new things with appropriate mentoring.
  6. Diffuse information to everyone in the organization as frequently as possible. The more one knows about how things work, the more politically effective one can be.
  7. Provide equal access to resources (equipment, skills and information) needed by the group.

Freeman’s manifesto is dated, but these principles make sense when dealing with the proclivity (I think it’s learned, so I won’t say ‘natural tendency’) of people in groups to dominate, bully, gang up, hoard, compete, take perverse pleasure in others’ failure, and do things without adequate consultation.

My question is whether you can get people to follow these principles. If you have to impose them on the group, haven’t you already made the group less democratic by that imposition? And can you impose them on a group?

My (admittedly idealistic) proposal in Natural Enterprise is that self-selection of the group should prevent these problems from occurring in the first place. Those who are disinclined to work for someone who tends to want to dominate will select the dominant types out of the group. Those who want to be dominated, to be told what to do and how to do it, will self-select into groups that include that type of individual. Furthermore, in Natural Enterprise, the self-selecting group’s first task is to set out the mutually agreeable principles by which it will operate. Of course, this is a learning process, one that will be very new to most of us, so it should not be surprising that it takes some time for the self-selection process to work. In its early days, every Natural Enterprise will be expelling those who didn’t work out, allowing others who didn’t understand what they were getting into to select themselves out, and others to be invited or opt in in their place. Every system is messy when it first begins. And I have a great belief in instinct — it is rare when my first instinctive impression of a work colleague, positive or negative, has proven dead wrong. Nature has given us this marvelous gift of instinct to make the process of group self-selection easier and more reliable.

In the aforementioned article on collaboration I described a four-step program for True Collaboration: teaching it as a core skill, recognizing and rewarding its successes, self-assessing our competency at it, and practice, practice, practice. I have seen domineering people humbled by this process, but I have also seen egotistical, inflexible and unimaginative leaders completely ignore brilliant collaborative work-products. I’m the first to confess that collaboration is not currently something most of us do well, but I believe strongly that it works, makes us stronger and more resilient and adaptable as a species, and that for that reason the ability to do it well should be in our genes.

But I have also seen petty despots and cliques who have ruined the communities and organizations they preside over, even though some of them were elected by a majority and believe fervently that they’re acting in the majority’s interest, by minimizing their diversity (in every sense of the word) and essentially expelling anyone with different views. And I’ve seen dictators and cult leaders who rule with an iron fist, some of whom are extraordinarily popular, even revered, despite flagrantly violating these principles of democracy, egalitarianism and collaboration.

Are these behaviours — excessive dominance, bullying, ganging up, hoarding resources, competing instead of collaborating, and doing things without consulting others — unlearnable? And how about the behaviours that make these foolish behaviours possible — others’ submissiveness, cowardice, self-victimization, self-isolation, passivity, meekness, resignation — can they be unlearned too? Is it naive and unrealistic to think that we all have something valuable to contribute, we all instinctively seek and belong to communities, and, given a chance, we could and would all participate as equals in every community and organization to which we belong?

I appreciate that nature has endowed us with dominant and submissive genes, to establish a natural pecking order so that, even without language, we can maintain order in our groups. But in nature there is enormous collaboration and sharing of resources, infinitely more peace and equality and less suffering than we find in most human institutions. I’m not saying we need to learn to be exactly equal, just that by ‘ousting the egos and outing the wallflowers’, we need to learn to be more egalitarian.

I’d love to know more about how WL Gore really works, and how it doesn’t work (Derek suggests the power vacuum spawns horrendous political infighting and undemocratic decision-making). Anyone know people working at Gore, or other organizations with ‘no ranks, no titles, no bosses’, who could share their lessons learned?

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  1. Harry says:

    Any democratically run community or organization has to retain a means of coping with the excessive behaviors you mention. I’ve been toying with expulsion wielded by self-exile as a last ditch measure; a member can kick anyone out provided he or she is willing to go too.

  2. SB says:

    Wow — this article (The Tyranny of Structurelessness) had a powerful influence on my thinking, long ago and continuing — I’m grateful for the link.

  3. Bob Morris says:

    As one who has been involved in Green Party politics, I’d say Jo Freeman’s comments aren’t dated at all.The Green Party believes hugely in decentralization and consensus as ways of getting things done. Unfortunately, such a style almost guarantees there will be no effective leadership, because, among other things, leadership can never evolve.I’ve blogged about this.

  4. Jeff Vail says:

    I couldn’t agree more about your statement of the need to find a more efficient mode of organization — a more liberating mode of organization — than hierarchy. I’ve written a book about the topic, framed in the context of hierarchy vs. rhizome, as well as several articles avaiable on my blog:

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. Looks like Derek is onto something important. *sigh* Now not only do we have to save the world, we have to design a power structure for the culture that replaces this one, that won’t have us at each other’s throats all over again. Bob: I’ve been involved with various political movements most of my life, and have worked with the leaders of Canada’s Green Party as they struggle to find a model of organization that is truly ’emPOWERing’ to everyone.Jeff: I’ve added your book to my ‘to buy’ list. Jon H, if you see this, you might find Jeff’s book worth checking out too.

  6. Jon Husband says:

    Thanks, Dave. When reading the post (before I got here), I was reminded of two items I’ve read many times … Arthur Leavitt’s “TopDown – Why Hierarchies Stay …” and Elliott Jaques “In Praise of Hierarchies” … neither of which imo make the case for the sustenance of “traditional” hierarchy.I tend to think that we all need to re-conceptualize what we mean by “power” in this new set of conditions … for example, we all uncritically accept that “knowledge is power”, and I would submit that many days these actually seems NOT to be the case. When “knowledge” starts being the basis for more decisions, and (if ever) we get past this ear of all spin all the time, then maybe … but it seems that as of now, hierarchy has learned well how to use language and control of the main means of informing people to consolidate official “power”.As well, earlier this year Euan semple introduced me to Gerard Fairtlough while I was in London … Gerard is an ex-CEO of Shell, a colleague of Ariie de Geus, and is writing a book with the working title “Hierarchy – Just Another Bad Habit ?”I think we need some forms of structure to help us make many (but not all) types of decisions … I’m not at all sure that we need to have it institutionalized in almost all areas of wrok and throughout organizations … that is a “legacy system” which has become obsolete with respect to these new interconnected interlinked conditions.I also think that many of the necessary forms of structure are known to us, and require us only to ask good questions, much like Open Space takes its structure from a strong central (organizing) question, the absence of which renders an Open Space more or less impotent (as I believe you told me not too long ago you’ve experienced).I will look at Jeff’s book. Thanks.

  7. Rob Paterson says:

    A couple of ideas float to the surface.One is the power of scale. Using Magic Numbers, you can keep the norms high and the rules low. In your post there is I think an assumption of large scale. In my past life, in trading, the units were small, the leadership personal (check out the stary last week how David Kassie has poached the best former colleagues from CIBC) and the results very public.Dave – the search for the right rules is I think a blind alley. Better to be firm about scale and transparency of results.The second point is about “consent”. In the US submarine service, no boats have more than 120 men well inside the 150 limit, everyone is on a one year probation – including the Captain. They all know that one man can kill them all. If you fail the consent test you are gone. The men look for 2 things – your temperament and your technical skill.Natural systems for Natural Eneterprises

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Rob: Excellent points. I think, alas, it’s all about teaching, one-on-one, to show how collaboration and egalitarianism works, and how, with practice, non-hierarchical structures can work without rules or principles. In small organizations that’s feasible, but I’m not sure, as you say, that it scales. Large organizations just seem inherently dysfunctional, and trying to reduce the dysfunction through structure seems only to make it worse.

  9. saeb says:

    mais what the fuck ??!! c’est quoi cette image ??!! aaarrrhh!!!! si t’es contre l’anarchie c’est parce que t’es faible.. car l’anarchie c’est la lois du plus fort !!! fking fag..

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Saeb: Read the article, don’t just look at the picture. The argument against anarchy is Freeman’s not mine — I’m just explaining her argument, which is prevalent. If you’re going to change people’s minds, you need to first understand how they think.

  11. Better ThanYou says:

    this is gay.its all about anarchy.

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