On organising/ation

The practice workshop that took place on 2 December 2020 sought to explore the relationship that exists between the notion of “organisation” – the formalised structure that we inhabit as human agents seeking to do work – and the idea of “organising”, which is where human agency plays out as people coalesce to get things done.

A starting point was offered that these two modes sit in parallel to one another – with expectation and practice shuttling up, down and back and forth between them. This led to an assumption that the liminal space between them was where people working on organisation development might make the most meaningful contribution.

In fact, the discussion moved on from this faulty modelling very quickly. This trajectory supported the development of a range of provisional notions and conclusions, which are outlined here:

  • Organising can both be a facilitator in respect to an organisation – a group embracing the idea of innovating in their area of work – and a hindrance, with it interfering with the overall intent of the organisational frame.
  • In this regard, we can attend to the fact that organising can be seen to generate either workarounds (which may not serve the intention of the overall endeavour and may adversely impact others in the field) or serious reforms, in terms of the whys and wherefores of the organisation itself. Occasionally, this might simply be attitudinal: those of a conservative bent might see every grassroots innovation as an unhelpful workaround, whilst those with a more progressive orientation might seek to embrace these changes systemically.
  • If we assume that organising informs the organisation – and vice versa – in terms of ideas and practices moving up, down and in between, we also need to acknowledge that “organisational gravity” makes the down channel more conductive than the up channel. Notwithstanding notional commitments to involvement, engagement, and empowerment, the actual practice in this context works very often to ignore what is coming up from below rather than to relish it and work with it in a productive frame of mind.
  • The focus in these two modes is significantly different, which thereby generates a potential tension between them. In broad outline, it might be suggested that organisations reliance on governance and assurance (which contains within it a certain internal logic but seems less sensible when looked at in the broader context of actively getting things done) has a tendency to inhibit the capacity of people to engage meaningfully with their work and the ways in which it might be done differently and better
  • Where we envisage a separation between organising and organisation, we tend towards the idea that those who are invested heavily in the latter – for the purposes of shorthand, we might conceive of these people as the management and leadership cadres (although this is acknowledged as a crude generalisation) – reside in a hermetically sealed cube, where they seek to isolate themselves from the organisational ferment below. However, the point can equally be made that other groups across the terrain may well also contain themselves in sealed boxes of their own making.
  • Those hermetically sealed cubes have manifold purposes. At a senior level, it structurally rationalises the distance that exists between the executive-oriented leaders and the actual business of the endeavour of which those people are meant to be in charge. Elsewhere in this context, however, we need to return to the rich work of people like Isabel Menzies Lyth, who looked at organisations – and their stability – as crucial to the management of anxiety. The cube anchors people, regardless of the storm that might be raging. To that extent, it is interesting to refer to the story of the three little pigs; their “cubes” varied in terms of robustness but the aim overall became keeping the Big Bad Wolf from blowing down the house and wolfing down the residents. Moreover, it is possible to discern a strong link in this regard to powerlessness and the creation of identity through absorption in self-defined hermetically sealed cubes. In this context, we are able to see how this response to power equips those in the cube with the collective power of resistance, up to and including the act of naysaying.

The challenges that arise out of this

The first thing that this rich discussion exploded was the notion that our starting diagram was in any way reflective of reality. Indeed, it committed the cardinal error of importing binary thinking into a systemic interplay across a field of human practice. The first thing to discard, then, is the false separation between organisation and organising, with the former seen somewhat negatively and the latter as a source of boundless good.

Instead, our practice orientation needs to acknowledge the rich interplay between human agents working together. Organising is a motor of the organisation, spinning up at points in space and time to recraft the container in which activity is able to take place; instances of “organising” – where subjects extend the scope and scale of their work beyond the bounds of practice to date – flare, fail and occasionally fix into place across the terrain that we inhabit. Each emergence reshapes the organisational setting and context, with the organisation taking the form not necessarily of a monolith but as a kaleidoscopic mosaic, forever in a state of flux.

Similarly, it is important not to think simply of “organisation” as something unyieldingly concrete, a structure for containment and little else. Instead, it offers the frame within which people work – and through which they are hopefully licenced to find different and potentially better ways of working. Certainly, there are some managers and leaders who seek to take solace in the organisation as an impregnable castle; they need to wean themselves off this notion – and instead embrace the idea that it is rather a place that needs to be endlessly built and rebuilt, like the architectural palimpsestry that one sees as great cities reinvent themselves by preserving landmarks whilst at the same time overwriting their past in so many ways.

Implications for organisational life

All of which seems to suggest a number of important things. The development of an organisation means holding up a mirror to it, so that it might be able to see where its structures have become too solid and unshakeable. It also means speaking truth to power where that rigidity is reinforced by leadership practice in the organisation, so that people can feel relaxed with the idea of the walls crumbling, secure in the knowledge that the act of rebuilding will thoughtfully enrich it in so many ways, including shoring up its long-term structural integrity and developing the elegance of its design.

Lastly, there is a requirement to acknowledge the dynamics that exist in our workplaces – and to acknowledge their productive capabilities, rather than simply default to doubling down on structure or stretching a commitment to flexibility until it threatens the necessary cohesiveness of the overall endeavour. In standard business thinking, this nuanced perspective on dynamics tends to be expressed in the false dichotomy between stability and innovation.

To refute this, of course, we need to reflect back the interrelatedness that exists between people tapping into their capacity for critical thought and creative reimagining of the spaces and practices of where they work – and what they do and how they do it in that context – and the ways in which these efforts might refresh the container within which they do that work, thereby supporting even more meaningful development.

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