Monday, March 22, 2021

Organizations, Like People, Have Values

I stole the title from Peter Drucker's Harvard Business Review article titled "Managing Oneself" [pdf]. It has been 4 years since I graduated medical school and in that many years, having worked with (and escaped having to work with) organizations of different kinds, I have come to the same conclusion.

Organizations have values. These values can be determined by observing the way the organizations work. Whether or not you will feel happy working with an organization is determined by whether your values are compatible with the value system of that organization.

The values of an organization exist independently of the values of people in its leadership. The leaders have a great role in determining the values of an organization. But often leaders are distracted by a "pragmatic" approach that usually follows money in an increasingly capitalistic world. And this makes them make compromises without even realizing what they're giving up.

And you can't blame them. Organizations, by definition, have the motivation to grow. Growth is easier to achieve if an organization focuses on either money or power. Because they have a top-down nature, it is easier to wield money and/or power to direct growth. There might also be an argument that a top-down approach like that will lead to larger and faster results too.

This also leads to a particular set of values. Even if the leaders of an organization have a different set of values in their personal life, their choice to focus on money/power will lead their organization to have a value system in which retaining and increasing money/power will be a core priority. That influences the kind of values that can thrive in those organizations.

On the other hand, choosing to focus on things like "people" will lead to organizations being structured in very different ways, especially with regard to decision making. Such bottom-up structure fosters different values altogether.

When I say bottom-up, I am not talking about a "top-down disguised as bottom-up" management structure. In fact, the right way to run any organization is that top-down, yet bottom-up way as explained in this article: "How to Design a Self-Managed Organization". But eventually such an organization is still one where there is a leader who ultimately is in charge (even though they rarely use that control in day-to-day activities of the organization). I am not talking about that bottom-up style.

I am talking about a truly bottom-up style where there are no leaders at all. This is akin to participatory research. 

"Participatory research comprises a range of methodological approaches and techniques, all with the objective of handing power from the researcher to research participants, who are often community members or community-based organisations. In participatory research, participants have control over the research agenda, the process and actions. Most importantly, people themselves are the ones who analyse and reflect on the information generated, in order to obtain the findings and conclusions of the research process. " ~ source

What would organizations look like if they embraced the participatory approach? What would the role of a leader be in such an organization?

The P2P foundation wiki has lots to speak about it. On the same, I found a link to The Three Ways of Getting Things Done by Gerard Fairtlough. This book provides two alternatives to hierarchy - heterarchy and responsible autonomy. 

"If hierarchy is the power system of centralized systems, then heterarchical power is the power system of decentralized systems and Responsible Autonomy is the power system of distributed systems."

Similar thoughts about adaptive leadership is mentioned in Complexity Leadership Theory (H/T: Dr Ramakrishna Prasad).

The question of money or "business model" also has a big role in deciding the values of an organization. Organizations who raise money before work is done tend to have made promises which decide how the work is done. The nature of these promises decides the value of these organizations.

Sometimes, such commitments can make an organization take up values that are antithetical to their own mission. Especially when it comes to free software, or free knowledge, having financial commitments lead to organizations wanting to make money out of software and knowledge - which is arguably easier if you restrict freedoms.

An organization with the wrong structure cannot have the right values. And if you find yourself in a situation where the people in an organization wants to have the right values but aren't radically restructuring the organization, then run away as fast and far as possible.

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