After Frederic Laloux: Reinventing Information Organizations

“Something is broken in today’s organizations…The pain we feel is the pain of something old that is dying…while something new is waiting to be born.”

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

So much of organizational life is onerous and frustrating these days. For many of us, the day job is characterised by aggravation and a sense of soullessness: a “cold, mechanical approach” which trades agency and responsibility for box-checking accountability and loss of control.

Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations ...

That’s what Frederic Laloux argues in his 2014 book Reinventing Organizations, which explores alternative models for those institutions and businesses willing to dissolve hierarchies and pursue new management paradigms.

Laloux’s case studies include the Dutch healthcare organization Buurtzorg, which delivers community care in leaderless self-organizing teams of ten to twelve nurses, and FAVI, a French automotive supplier which has divided itself into self-managing “mini-factories” whose teams operate without executive management. These businesses and institutions, Laloux argues, resemble living systems more than the organisations of old. They are evolving beyond previous, rigid ways of bringing people together to achieve a goal: the army, the university, the corporation…even the organized crime syndicate.

Laloux presents a practical vision for a world where “no one is the boss of anyone else”, and our organizations begin to take on an organic character.

The approach is intended to work across many sectors, with examples including highly regulated industries such as the energy industry and food processing. I thought I’d spend some time thinking about what it would mean for information organisations – archives, libraries, and other entities which create, store, share, and manage information – to explore Laloux’s approach. What would it take for us to reinvent the Information Organization? Read more

Fight, Flight, and Futures Thinking: Getting Control of Organizational Panic

“The body’s reaction under critical incident stress has almost nothing to do with how you think rationally. Instead it has almost everything to do with ingrained responses, be they trained ones or instinctive ones. The amygdala will choose. It has the chemical authority to override your conscious thoughts and decisions. It also has the chemical authority to enforce its decision despite your conscious will.”

29569296885_fdc992d3df_c
Scuba divers by Flickr user Tim Snell CC BY-ND 2.0

In an article on “accounting for adrenalin” in situations of self-defence, US Air Marshal M. Guthrie describes the challenges of making swift and effective decisions under extreme stress. Often in such situations, our own instincts seem to act against us.

Guthrie gives the example of scuba divers who drown despite having full oxygen tanks; in a moment of crisis, the amygdala reacted by driving them to clear their airways, spitting out their breathing tube despite the diver being consciously aware that they were underwater.

“Deeply ingrained reactions are far more likely than conscious decisions,” Guthrie writes. “And don’t even get me started on how much training you have to do to override and replace your body’s instinctive responses with new ones. Regardless, you won’t be selecting an option from a menu of choices calmly and rationally like you do in the training hall. Your body is going to pick its own response in a maelstrom[.]”

Organizations aren’t precisely like organisms, and the way we think when we work collectively isn’t quite like the dramatic individual encounters which trigger our adrenal glands. Often an organizational crisis is measured in hours, days, or weeks, rather than seconds and minutes. It will involve discussion, policy, and procedure, with a pace and structure quite different from the amygdala prompting an unreasoned – and possibly counterproductive – survival response.

Still, organizations can go into a panic just as much as individuals can, and when they do so, they may start making harmful or counterproductive decisions. Significant among the situations which trigger such panic are “feral futures“. In these situations, we think we have tamed the environment we are operating in, but misunderstand what is going on, and our action based on false premises or data in fact makes things gravely worse. Read more