Decentralization and Human Development

April 28, 2009 Leave a comment

I have been a zealous (some would say over-zealous!) proponent of networks and the application of network theory to the work of social change. I have been pushing and working for a radical rethink of our very approach to social transformation. I believe we have to move away from a model that is organization-centric into a mission-based model that maximizes the potential of decentralization. My vision calls for an approach that creates the conditions for the emergence of ideas, opportunities and formations that we could not have been imagined through our visioning and strategic planning efforts.

I am still a believer, and I’m probably still a zealot, I still see the ways in which an unbelievable wealth of passion, conviction, dedication and self motivation is wasted away, trapped by organizational structures that constrain this energy rather than liberate it. However, I have also been delving into a multiplicity of frameworks and studies addressing human development and it is increasingly evident that we are all at different stages of development. Being an adult does not always mean one has advanced through every stage of development and so not everyone can work with the same layers of complexity.

Now, I am clearly aware that I’m delving into dangerous territory, and I have no intention of getting into “who decides who is how developed,” but I will be bold enough to agree with the proposition that human beings evolve through a set of developmental stages, that these stages allow us to deal with greater and greater levels of complexity, and that we are not all at the same developmental stage. This is an important insight for someone working to shift organizational structures. It is possible that the more idealized decentralized models we are looking at might actually be making an idealized assumption about the developmental levels of the human beings involved.

However, rather than pulling back from this push forward along the paradigm shift, I think that what is important is that we understand that such developmental dynamics are always at play. Accounting for this layer of complexity does not mean that we move away from facilitating decentralized, self-organizing systems, it means than in fomenting this next phase of social movement we also seek to create the conditions for developmental progress among the human beings involved. Our job is not to assume that some people just can’t shift, but to understand how certain organizational parameters can support our evolution while liberating our will to create change.

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  • Linda says:

    Wonderful provocation! Gets me to thinking not just about the individual development but also how the system may feed the limits. DoINg know there’s been work at the group and organizational levels about stages of development. What about the system itself? Does a system go through developmental stages? If so, what does that mean about how we approach change?

  • Curtis says:

    So this comment may be slightly off topic, but in a meeting today with our friends from NetAge, Jeff Stamps was suggesting that “centralized” and “decentralized” are dangerous terms, because one is often considered bad (or worse) and the other better. In other words, like many terms, they are value-laden. Furthermore, he again made the point that all networks have some degree of centralization (or hierarchy), and that all organizations (and hierarchies) have aspects of decentralization. The question is, “Around what are organizations and hierarchies structured?” If we move from “rank hierarchy” to “organizing hierarchy,” for example, we may see important shifts and avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I find this interesting and important to consider, along with the suggestion that instead of “centralized” and “decentralized,” we use the terms “decenterized” and “centerized.”

  • Gibran says:

    Linda, I do think that whole systems do go through stages of development, and I don’t think that every human in a given system has to be at the same level of development for the system itself to be at that level. What I mean is that a number of people, not even a majority, operating from a higher level (meaning able to deal with greater complexity) can probably move that system as a whole. However, an inclusive system takes care to support the development of all participants.

  • Gibran says:

    Curtis, I always appreciate what I consider a good form of pragmatism in your thinking, your wanting to hold complexity and not throw everything out. I think your point displays the virtue. Having identified myself as a zealot I do have to say that I place a value on decentralization and in fact find it better than centralization (even if I do admit that not at all times in all situations). I think your point holds for organizations but I’m not sure if it holds for movement, which is my central concern.

    I do think that the “centerizing” and “decenterizing” logic you propose does hold in movement but from the perspective of “swarm theory.” So in my perspective, hierarchies and centers are good for getting something done, but also have a beginning and an end as a formation. We don’t let them calcify.

  • Melinda says:

    This is intense. I have thoughts, but its 100 o’clock in the morning, I fear I wont be terribly coherent when I should be getting to bed to train in the morning. Yet, I couldnt resist posting this tweet I received (which many of you may have also received) today, that speaks to the centralized v. decentralized approaches in dealing with big hairy problems and problem-solving.

    NYT op ed by David Brooks.

  • Gibran says:

    This is great Melinda! I missed that one yesterday, thanks for calling my attention to it. What comes to mind is that the argument becomes even more viable when profit and control are not leading motives. In this case, the motivation is safety, could justice be as motivating?

  • Linda says:

    Reading through your great responses to the comments, I’m moved by your descriptions of centerizing structures becoming manifest as needed and then going away. So rather than the structure being what the sustaining force, structure is in service of the sustaining force. (Perhaps also a good description of life.) The key, as may always be true, is enough self/organizational reflection to know when structures are serving and when they are constraining. The other challenge is that at times constraining is what is most needed. Acting too fast can sometimes take us way in a damaging direction (as tempting as it is). So you seem to have started talking about a central challenge about how to tell when structure or center-holding/centerizing is what is needed (even if it seems to constrain for the time being) and when it is constraining in a way that works against what is needed. Wow!

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