I seem to spend a lot of mental effort battling between the benefits of structured versus unstructured approaches to doing things, so a 1972 essay by Jo Freeman (aka Joreen) recently caught my attention. The article was originally published in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and appeared in Ms. magazine a year later – you can read the full essay here. Jo Freeman recently passed away, after a long and distinguished career as both an attorney, activist and author. The article is focused on the struggles of the feminist movement at that time, but it contains many points which are relevant for those using social software to transform organisations today.

There are threads within ‘lean’, ‘Social Business’ and many other areas, that risk hurling the baby out with the bath water in their attempts to eliminate structure. Not all structures are bad, and the pursuit of completely unstructured systems is a structural limit in its own right (hence the title of the essay :- the tyranny of structurelessness). In many ways, embracing structure can be liberating, and that is very much the kind of structural change required in modern businesses.

…it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all.

I want to draw from a list of points from the end of the essay. They suggest some principles to keep in mind, which have proven essential to democratic structuring. They are useful points for structuring work, and managing a business:

  1. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks.
  2. Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them.
  3. Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible.
  4. Rotation of tasks among individuals.
  5. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria.
  6. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible.
  7. Equal access to resources needed by the group.

Let me rephrase those into three, simpler points, which make a good frame work for business collaboration:

  • Delegate with authority and accountability
  • If you have asked someone to do something, they are responsible for doing it, they are responsible to you, and they have the authority (and autonomy) to do it. We run a very clean delegation model in Milestone Planner. When you create an action for someone, within one of your milestones, they own that action, and that action is being done for you. They can then break that action down in anyway that they want, and sub-delegate it. This is something that will become even stronger in our upcoming releases. Clean accountability is essential for effective working.
  • Distribute responsibility widely and rationally
  • Keeping decision making centralised makes for slow responses, which slow exponentially as the organisation grows. Distribute decision making as far out as you can, and negotiate based on the impact of the decision, rather than the criteria for the decision. Task completion date is the most obvious external impact, but there are others. Distributing management makes for more informed, more rapid decision making.
  • Centralised project management does not work in today’s fast moving world. Jim’s next post will discuss why. Distribute to get velocity, agility and efficiency.
  • Provide broad access to information and resources
  • Traditional IT systems were built to lock away information. This gate keeper mentality is generally costly, dangerous and increasingly outmoded. Let everyone see the whole plan, unless there is a very specific reason that is not practicable, and let everyone have access to the resources they need, and negotiate reasonably for them. The increased context provided by broader information sharing leads to a clearer sense of purpose. The increased transparency also reduces the chances of poor or ill-advised decision making.

To be able to adapt to change, we need to adapt our organisations to change. While that means new models of organisation, it doesn’t invalidate traditional good business sense!