Cellular Organization

tipping_pointJon Husband defines wirearchy, a term he coined, as follows:

“A dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, and credibility, enabled by connected people and technology”

‘-archy’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘rule, power or authority’, and ‘hier’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘sacred’. When the word hierarchy was first used in the church, it literally meant ‘sacred rule’. We no longer see our hierarchical leaders in politics or business as sacred (though sometimes, when I see the cult of leadership, especially in the US, I wonder), but we have kept the term to describe the power structure.

Two other suffixes, also from the Greek, are used almost interchangeably with ‘-archy’, but neither really refers to power: ‘-cracy’ means ‘government’ and -opoly’ means ‘seller’. So a monopoly is a system with one seller, an oligopoly a system with just a few. And democracy is government of the people while autocracy is government by one person. The fact that we use the three terms that mean ‘power’, ‘government’ and ‘seller’ almost interchangeably shows the perverse degree to which, in our modern corporatist world, the three terms have become virtually synonymous. The government and the sellers (corporations) have all the power. Our ‘learned helplessness’ keeps us from thinking it was ever, or ever could be, any other way.

This essay is about power, and about how we give it, take it, and share it. In ancient Greece, rule was by divine right, while authority was vested, and both held power. Democracy, in its earliest form, gave ‘the people’ authority over dealings with each other, but not power over those in the true hierarchy, the religious and political leaders who called themselves ‘lords’ with no sense of irony. Democracy was rules for the children in the schoolyard, and granted no authority over those who actually ran the school.

Most of the wars fought since then have been either religious wars (wars between true hierarchies) or revolutionary wars (wars aimed at transferring power from the true hierarchies to the merchant class, and later to ‘the people’). The problem with such ‘-archies’ is that as they get bigger they get more fragile they become. Malcolm Gladwell, in an article called The Cellular Church* about preacher and Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren, put it this way:

If I go to church with 500 members, in a magnificent cathedral, why should I volunteer or donate any substantial share of my money? What kind of peer pressure is there in a congregation that large? If the barriers to entry become too low — and the ties among members increasingly tenuous — then the church as it grows bigger becomes weaker. One solution to the problem is simply not to grow, and, historically, churches have sacrificed size for community. But there is another approach: to create a church out of a lot of little church cells. The small group as an instrument of community is initially how Communism spread, and in the post-war years AA and its 12-step progeny perfected the small-group technique. Members sat in a circle. The focus was on interaction — not one person teaching [or preaching] and the others listening — and the remarkable thing about these groups is their power. [Churches and others soon found] the small group was an extraordinary vehicle of commitment. It was personal and flexible. It cost nothing. It was convenient, and every [member] was able to find a small group that precisely matched his or her interests.

Gladwell even quotes philosopher Dick Wesley that calls such cells “intentional communities”.

How big is a cell? As big or small as its self-selected members choose it to be, though the bigger-is-weaker rule would seem to limit it to much smaller size than the 150 people we are (according to social network gurus) able to accommodate in a personal network. The key to the cell, it appears, is the strength of strong links — members are each others’ families, best friends, work colleagues, and everyone in the cell likes (loves?) everyone else in the cell. That makes an astonishing bond, that, if it’s cultivated, can be indomitable, and powerful. What mystifies Gladwell is how Warren and others can manage to harness that power, essentially without hierarchy. It requires a lot of work to reach and steer a million scattered cells of ten people than a single televangelist audience of ten million. But if you can do it, it’s a much more powerful network. The key to reaching these cells seems to be providing them with a flexible template of activities attuned to their values, and letting them self-form and self-manage. The multiple short chapters of Warren’s books serve as a menu of choices for his church’s sells to choose from, apply to their own shared context, and learn from. Most of the learning is from each other.

Surprisingly, Gladwell doesn’t discuss how the cellular organization model fits with the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen in his Tipping Point. Does it fit at all, or has Warren found a way to change the world that is more, er, democratic?

Next Gladwell tells us what Warren is doing now. He’s reverse tithing 90% of his income from books and donations to third world humanitarian work, especially the scourge of AIDS in Africa. And guess what?

He decided to take the same networks he had built to train pastors and spread the purpose-driven life and put them to work on social problems. [Explaining how poor distribution networks have hampered third world humanitarian aid, he says] “Well, the biggest distribution network in the world is local churches.”

So now he’s taking his cellular organization and vowing to use it to end world poverty and disease. Now that’s power.


* Not currently online, but keep an eye out on gladwell.com

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Cellular Organization

  1. Wissbegieriger says:

    That’s a really good one, Dave. I apologise if my sharp remark a week or two ago caused you to not reply to mail on other topic. It’s just that the doomsday part sometimes gets under my skin. Person-to-person, it’s the kind of thing one just appreciates of another’s ways of getting at what’s important. I have my own…and a dissatisfaction with what you are dissatisfied with that has driven me around the world, through a life, perhaps more importantly through many ‘libraries’ ;). So count a friend, please.Clive

  2. The 150 rule that Gladwell cites doesn’t have so much to do with optimal social network throughput as it does with the cognitive capacity of human neurology. Gladwell got the “150” number from the research of Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool. Gladwell then applied that research, and saw that because it’s rooted in the human brain, it’s a very effective limit to social networks–the same way that web designers limit the number of main menu items on a page according to optimal short-term memory capacity. I used all this extensively recently in the seventh of my “Thirty Theses“: “Humans are best adapted to band life.”– Jason

  3. Wissbegieriger says:

    just a p.s. to above – you might like to know that I wrote it just out of own recollection and consideration, before having seen your ‘far too late’ etc. multiphase posting. We are all human here, and that’s our saving as well as our ‘problems’. Enjoy the conference — interesting stuff, and it’s always great to see what people do as they are doing it, in another of our cities. Best again, Clive.

Comments are closed.