Structure Begets Collaboration (or Not?)

August 11, 2014 4 Comments

Photo by Synopia

A number of readings I’ve come across lately reference the important consideration of organizational structure and how it encourages or discourages collaboration.  In a post from last week, I highlighted the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, which focuses on “evolutionary (Teal) organizations” that embrace an ethic of self-organization to facilitate more purpose-driven, holistic and responsible engagement on the part of organizational members.  In order to encourage self-organization and intrinsic motivation, these entities adopt less formally hierarchical and fixed-role structures in favor of fluidity and networked leadership.  According to Laloux, this brings more timeliness and relevance to the inner workings and responsiveness of these organizations.


I also just finished reading Everything Connects by Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer, the subtitle of which is “How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation and Sustainability.”  While I take issue with some of the examples the authors choose to highlight and their particular take on “sustainability,” there are some interesting sections highlighting the network ethic at play in business, including leveraging “clusters.” Clusters might be thought of as a new twist on teams, which seeks to leverage talent in non-siloed ways and embraces self-organization and adaptability.  Clusters are purpose-driven, time-bound, diverse, self-managed, and evolve according to need.  The authors make the point that highly hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations make it hard for such clusters to form at the right time with the right people in rapidly changing environments.


Another source on this topic is Harold Jarche, who recently published ten year’s worth of blog-channeled thinking and writing on networked work in an ebook entitled Seeking Perpetual Beta.  In a summary post, Jarche references the critical nature of organizational structure in facilitating learning in a networked age.  Hierarchies are fine in command-and-control situations when context and tasks are relatively stable and predictable.

“But hierarchies are rather useless to . . . innovate and change.”

To successfully navigate complexity, organizations benefit from tools and practices that allow for transparency, learning and free and continuous connectivity.  The effective “connected enterprise,” from Jarche’s perspective, embraces “wirearchy,” characterized by loose hierarchies and strong networks (rotating roles, shared leadership, trust).


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Lastly, a recent blog post by Deb Lavoy explicitly asks the question about the connection between structure and collaboration.  She considers different forms of hierarchy, including “push” and “pull” versions, as well as more distributed network forms – holacracy and wirearchy.  Each comes with its particular set of advantages and disadvantages.

Collaboration (c0-laboring) can exist in all kinds of structures, but may appear more or less limited depending upon ultimate purpose and context.  The invitation is really to see the structures that are in place and what they allow and encourage.  As Lavoy writes,

“We are no longer limited to the idea that one model fits all. It’s a new opportunity to be creative and to test centuries old assumptions.”


  • GibranX says:

    Curtis, thank you so much for sharing your learning. This resonates. Some big highlights for me include the idea that clusters are time bound – big on that! Beginnings and Ends are extremely powerful in a complex world. I also thought about how the US Armed Forces are the quintessential hierarchical structure, and even there much of the complex world is done by clusters of special op forces.

    The question that lingers for me regards what different types of people might need. Are there people who thrive within the clarity of a hierarchical structure? Would they be lost in a looser system? My bias is to think that we all have to adapt and learned to thrive in a networked world, we all need to release our dependance of the boss, the priest or the President… but I do ask myself the question. What is definitely true is that “We are no longer limited by the idea that one size fits all”

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, Gibran. I like your question, and share it. I was just wondering what would ensure that organizational structure is not so dependent upon the personality or comfort zone of formal leadership and more on contextual need. The reality, it seems, is that some people are more comfortable with predictable structure than others. Perhaps no way to avoid this, and my expectation is that there will continue to be a need for “conserving” structures, not just ones that open and fluid. Life thrives on that movement, right?

      • GibranX says:


      • Miriam Messinger says:

        I wonder and am curious to read more about how this plays out in organizations. One thing I have experienced is that people have energy for different things. In many organizations and networks, perhaps activist ones in particular, there is a needed focus on the external work. I have seen less attention to the how and “back office” piece of the activist work except when it is either assigned as a role or is an individual’s passion. Are there examples where clusters emerge to raise the money, or communicate?I can see how people would prioritize learning together or emotional support although often see those falling by the way side as well.

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