Planning for 2023: Black Box Organizations

A living organism can survive only by exchanging materials with its environment: by being an open system.

Vega Zagier Roberts

Every year, around this time, I like to share a tool which can help with your planning.

Though the shift from 2022 to 2023 is just a quirk of the calendar, the arrival of a new year tends to focus our attention on what’s coming. People make resolutions, use the holiday season to take stock and decide where they want to go next, or treat January 1st as a turning point for their lives at work or home.

This year, I want to share a tool which I created after reading Vega Zagier Roberts’ essay “The Organization of Work“. It explores organizations of all kinds – from projects to families, from teams to institutions – as “black boxes” with inputs and outputs.

It gets us to reflect on the pressures which are placed on us from within and without when we try to manage undertakings. It can form the basis for useful questions and reflections at the outset of a project, whether you carry out the task alone or with others. And it can also give insights into the state of a system which is already in place.

To start off, choose an organization, project, or undertaking which you want to reflect on. If you’re doing this task with others, you may each like to draw your boxes and follow the steps separately, or you can work together on, say, a shared whiteboard.

Draw a box like the one below, with an arrow going into it and an arrow coming out:

We can imagine that systems are boxes like these: something is put into them, they do their work, and as a result of this process, something emerges on the other side.

On the left-hand side of the box, write down all your answers to the question: what is being put into this organization?

This can include time, resources, expectation, pressure, hope; whether the answers are quantifiable or non-quantifiable, concrete or perceived, they are all acceptable. You can even include conflicting and contradictory answers, for this and every subsequent stage of the process.

Now, on the right-hand side of the box, write down all your answers to the question: what is expected to come out of this organization?

This includes outputs, outcomes, measurable goals, how people are expected to feel at the end of the organization’s work; changes in the world which are expected to take place as a result of the organization doing its thing.

It can also include undesirable outputs and outcomes. If a car driver turns the key of their ignition, they expect some exhaust fumes, undesirable as they may be – if there were no fumes, they’d be curious why. When we train athletes or play sports at elite level, we expect some injuries, even though we try to avoid and minimise such outcomes.

Now, underneath the box, answer the question: how did this organization arise?

Think about its history. How did this organization, project, system, or undertaking come to exist and be configured in the form in which we find it today? Note down all possible answers, including where there are competing accounts.

If there are things you don’t know about this history, express your curiosity – note down the questions you have, the places where you don’t know how the organization came to be in its current form.

Finally, above the box, answer the question: what is resting on this organization?

That’s not quite the same as your answer to the question about expected outputs and outcomes on the right-hand side.

Rather, it asks you to consider what part this organization plays in its wider system and context.

What depends on the organization existing in its current form?

What would fall through if the organization as it currently stands changed or ceased to exist?

If the organization in its current form were not there, would there be a gap? What shape would that gap have? What might have to arise to take its place?

Is it an irreplaceable cog in a larger machine or could other parts be switched in to substitute for it? Would competitors or rivals step in?

If it disappeared, would the space it left behind heal over in time? How?

Now, draw a container around your box. (You may want to do this on a fresh sheet of paper).

This container represents the leaders or managers of your organization: the people responsible for maintaining and guiding it.

Rather than thinking of leaders at the apex of a hierarchical pyramid, Vega Zagier Roberts suggests we can think of them as containers who manage boundaries, separating the organization from the wider world. These boundaries allow some materials to flow back and forth between the organization and its environment, but they must be regulated.

Leaders can, with effort, adjust how easy it is for things to flow across the boundary. They can also stretch this container when necessary, to meet increased demands or ambitions or scope, or constrain it, when resources are tight or focus is necessary.

Consider the leaders of your organization as a container which maintains the black box’s boundaries.

What are the external pressures on those leaders?

What forces are exerted on them, from which actors, in which directions?

What are the internal pressures on those leaders?

What pressure is put on that container from within? From where, and how, is the pressure exerted?

What pressures come from the very nature of the organization’s task?

What pressures come from how that black box is configured internally?

These diagrams can help spark richer conversation about the task and identity of an organization, and the challenges as well as opportunities it will face in its wider environment.

It is not a “spaghetti maker” approach, where merely by turning the crank, wisdom will be extruded. But it provides a fresh perspective and a deeper basis for discussion about what we are trying to do together and how we might go about it, including how the very nature of the systems we inhabit may affect our attempts to achieve our goals.

You can follow up this kind of “black box” discussion with more conventional strategic planning tools.

You can ask yourselves: in order to achieve my goals in the new year, what should this black box stop, start, or continue doing?

How should it be configured internally? Must it be reshaped?

How should the boundaries be set and maintained? What will be required to achieve and sustain this?

You can also consider forces coming towards you from the past or the future, or the wider ecosystems of value creation which you inhabit.

But taking yourselves through this structured black box discussion can help you to reflect on what it means to keep your organization, however vast or humble, healthy and functioning as it sets about its business.

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