Collaborative Tools 1: Why flat organizations still need honest role division

This two part evaluation exercise is a follow up on the most discussed topic in our Brussels Workshop. We talked most of the day about collaboration and how we want to find better ways to create fruitful coaction. If we want to be abble to work together inside our value system, we need to understand how we work. If fruitful collaboration means working togheter while feeling good towards each other in a mutual environment of respect, these two thought bubbles could be for you.

This article is a more personal post that came to mind after evaluating my own participation in two projects and how horizontal organizations can play mind tricks to your own involvement.

Modern organizations, starting as a local and small group of people tend to go fast in an horizontal or flat organization structure. People are seen as equal and every role is important, it helps to feel involved, and makes the range of possibilities bigger. But without a leader the group misses sometimes direction and efficiency is less visible. Roles are then distributed and somebody becomes head of design, head of funds or head of communication. Productivity is flowing again, but for me a subtler barrier is still in the way. From idea to task you still need preparation, and that is something I’m completely lacking of.

You could argument that everybody needs to do his part of preparation, and you can’t only be the philosopher, but I lean to see a collective as an ecosystem where each other strengths are put up front and we organize ourselves around this.

Often I tend to fill the gaps as soon as I see them. If something practical isn’t been taken care of I jump to do it, because I’m good at last minute problem solving, but with my lack of preparation skills, if it is to much in amount it take all my energy and i’m doomed to fail, followed by personal and collective frustration.

The Thinkers, the Preppers and the Doers

So instead of blocking on my personal incompetence, I try to solve it by what I like doing: systemical thinking. I categorize all work inside an organization in three categories that flow in each other: Thinking, preparing and doing.

Visualize your own strengths and weaknesses as a finite set of skill points like in a video game. In your short or long-lived life you earned skill points through events and big moments. You gathered your knowledge into one of those categories and how more you collect how more you can handle in that category, but other way around: tackling tasks inside a category you aren’t good is time and energy consuming with an inefficient consequence as a a result.

Unless you are a superhuman that can do everything alone, in an organization it is rather intelligent to search for each other complementary skills. A thinker with a lot of energy to give to do will need a preparation master as his right hand. How bigger the group how more difficult it is to find a balance, but have five thinkers and one prepper you will never get the job done.

The big difference with a vertical organization is that in a flat organization those three categories aren’t intended. Where you have specific roles inside a hierarchical organization build around power the thinker will always be above the prepper that will be above the doer. When you see everybody as equal we try to divide also the categories equal, but there is the catch: not a lot of people have throughout their lifetime chosen to equally distribute their skill points.

What we need is better understanding about this kind of dynamic. Knowing this I’m intended to take lesser practical mid-long tasks and preparative tasks on me cause I never trained myself and communicate it with my teammates to see how we can find a better dynamic inside the collective. On the other side, give me a task, well explained that takes a certain amount of time, even repetitive, I’m your guy.

Makes sense

What you write makes sense. People already think in this way to some extent, there are some good examples in our team of ‘doers’ that are very aware that they don’t like to do the ‘thinking’ etc. I often hear people talk about themselves in these (general) categories and assume this awareness is already more widespread.

Yet teams often still fail. Where lies the problem? Are we not taking the insight far enough?

Makes sense to me too. My two cents

I remember talking with Celine in Bxl about the perks and not of a flat group organising. The hardest part I’m experiencing is with growing - if you have a small team starting up people are more than willing to do everything and teach themselves what they don’t usually do in order to make it work. When numbers are in, it takes a conscious effort just to establish processes, or make norms more explicit i.e. double check understanding of the task at hand; make sure there is at least someone committed to the task; reinforcing that it’s OK to ask for help; to fail etc.

What I found that works is treating everything as a project in and of itself and assigning roles within the project. A making of sales, an event, a funded project, anything. In another one, roles can change, but as long as you have someone acting as a PM with that skillset (probably a prepper?) that takes on the responsibility to think about roles and enable them in the project team.

A final point: a flat organisation has leaders of its own, even informal - I can’t imagine not having leaders, even multiple ones, giving direction to the org. Don’t you have them in your large group Yannick? Falkwinge, who wrote about making great ideas happen with many people contributing, was saying that managing day to day operations require “one portion classic project management, one large portion of wisdom about conflict resolution, and one portion of methods on preserving the swarm’s goals, culture, and values as it grows.” OK, his Pirate Party was a swarm-like organisation which is not the same as flat but still pretty free, but also especially at risk of becoming chaotic. So having these hard+soft skills distrbuted within the leadership may help the general organisation and support others to fall into specific roles…

Adjusting roles over time and situation

@Yannick , you have a point here. I would like to add my own experience.

Here it is: there is a positive correlation between being good at different things, like thinking, prepping and executing in your scheme. Smart, hard working people tend to be better on all three (or n-) dimensions with respect to others. So, I very much share @Noemi 's point of view: when we meet an interesting person, we try to imagine a role for her, then try to create the conditions for us to be able to offer her that role. But, at the same time, the role is embedded in the project, not in the organisation. People can try their hand at roles, then maybe move on to different ones in the next project.

This allows for some limited pairwise adjusting, too. I prefer pure research to middle management roles, and I prefer middlie management to leadership. Still, in many of my former projects I had to lead, because no one else would do it (or could do it). I led reasonably well, with some mistakes, and I would do it again if I cared enought about the project. But when I find a better leader, I gladly step down to become, I guess you would say, a doer.

Working across strands, separately

At different points in my life i have found myself settling into each strand.

I think that i’m lucky that i have a mixture of practical and esoteric skills that allow me to find a happy place doing a variety of tasks. I often find that the more ‘mindless’ a physical task is the more it opens my mind up to thinking about the bigger picture.

That said, i have found that i only really excel when i’m allowed to focus on one area at a time. If i need to be a doer, then i can’t also be a prepper. The same with preparing and leading; Leading and thinking.

I do also think that ‘thinking’ and ‘leading’ are mutually exclusive properties. I believe that leaders emerge naturally from each section or strata. You see this kind of strategic leadership built into highly heirarchical organisations like the armed forces. You have ‘doer’ leaders and ‘prepper’ leaders and ‘thinker’ leaders.

+1 focus on one area at a time

Good words, Alex. Same for me.

The trap is what to me is a deadly combination: a lot of flexibility and many roles to choose from, on one hand, and being a generalist .on the other hand. These two can sometimes get you to drift off and not focus on one area at a time -> hence some extra messiness in a flat organisation, as prompted by @Yannick.