“We should work as if we are living in the early days of a better nation.” — Dennis Leigh
Organisational Design for Civil Society
At times I believe that many of us working in and across civil society feel trapped by our working structures. Structures that often feel captured by the past and rooted in 19th and 20th Century ways of working rather than orientated to the present and future. Structures that don’t reflect the passion and imagination that motivates people to join and work for so many of those very same cause driven organisations.
I’ve worked in and with civil society organisations for nearly three decades and have witnessed mission driven organisations of all sizes facing the classic challenges these structures manifest. Cultures of “busyness” and endless meetings that lock down time but have questionable productivity; silos or mini worlds as well as hierarchies that perpetuate cultures of “them and us…. othering”, processes and practices that encourage problem escalation and slow decision making rather than shared responsibility and ownership and finally often an uncomfortable distance between external mission behaviours and internal leadership and management practices.
Through our work at Koreo, we have increasingly understood these ways of working and structures as forces of disconnection that limit rather than release both the full human potential within our organisations and the pace of change we can collectively achieve; yet these forces seem persistent and pervasive even though few of us enjoy working in this way.
In my foreword for our recent collaboration with International Futures Forum, ‘Spaces for Growth’, I reflected on how I see the framing and the narrative that has emerged from this way of working as one of scarcity and how so often we hear how our organisations lack enough resources, people, money, time to do the best work and that therefore more of all of these things are needed. Whilst there’s no doubt a strong case can be made for better resourcing, what we don’t often say or hear is the need to scrutinise and change the very structures that underpin and perpetuate our ways of working.
Somewhere along the way we have lost our sense of agency to fundamentally change our organisational forms and have forgotten our organisations were built by people and can be changed, even reimagined, by people.
As the first lockdown came in March 2020, it was in those early days of the pandemic that we all witnessed so many of our established ways of working becoming unlocked. Things were spun upside down and turned inside out overnight; and suddenly, despite all the limitations and constraints placed upon us, it was a moment when cracks began to appear, fertilising ground for genuinely new, different and radical ideas to seed, root and grow. It was a rapid shift that dislodged presumptions about organisational time and space, and created opportunities for producing flow, connection and deeper learning — when possibility emerged from necessity.
It was in this transformational moment of the pandemic where I became more curious about reimagining organisational design specifically and started to explore the question; how can our organisations be redesigned as spaces that generate connection, respond to complexity and foster learning? How can we keep the cracks open and produce new ideas that could establish new ways of working for the longer term, resisting the temptation to resume old forms when lockdown ends?
Platforms as spaces for possibility
It was in this context that Platformation — a collaboration with Stephanie Sherman from Supervisions — about designing new forms of organisational design for civil society began to form.
A friend of Koreo, and having just completed a PhD in the field of platform dynamics, in a time of change and transformation, I reached out to Stephanie to ask what we could learn from the model of platforms and how might that learning benefit civil society organisations? This question led us into a beautiful collaboration for the next 18 months; talking, encouraging and learning. I’m forever grateful for the wisdom she shared with me and the inspiration that helped us move through the challenges of those times with a genuine sense of solidarity between women.
The conversation wasn’t about the work, it was the work and that initial question led to so many more. What does a new radical narrative and practice for organisational design look like in the 21st Century? What could and should we be learning from such a moment of transformation? Eventually we developed the essay we are now offering out into the space, hoping to help by provoking new thoughts. ‘Platformation’ is therefore an invitation to reimagine and purposefully redesign our organisations and ways of working towards human possibility.
In the essay, Stephanie suggests that whilst most current organisational structures of top-down command and control hierarchies consolidate power and send value one way down a chain, more emergent and alternative forms such as wholly bottom-up horizontal decentralised networks have often never played out in practice (Stephanie makes a wonderful reference to the tyranny of structurelessness) or have sat on the shelf as theories totally inaccessible to the rich landscape for experimentation that is civil society. Set up as a binary choice between the status quo or the unknown, a fait accompli has polarised and divided us — creating burnout, disillusionment and frustration for even the best intentioned leaders.
Building a more dynamic understanding and ongoing conversation about organisational forms — one conducted through active experimentation and application — Platformation itself sees the organisational operating system as a suite of principles, protocols, practices and patterns in which we realise our work in the pursuit of purpose; all of which are able to move, shift and be reconfigured through our imagination and ingenuity. Implicit and explicit, driven by values, culture and logistics, it is in this operational ‘scaffolding’ and combining the possibility of different forms and models together — something we can also take from the work of New Power — that we can create the time and space for creativity, agility, resilience, learning and invention.
Beyond the binary of vertical and horizontal, I am excited by the encouragement this gives us to imagine perpendicular design. Challenging us to ask questions that help us understand our organisational elements in new ways. Pushing back against the scarcity narrative and thinking about instead investing our energy and contribution towards how we can expand and grow — transforming individually and collectively to address issues and generate surplus; reimagining the way we do things and operating at the intersection between flow and systems/codification — where emergent and shared cultures leverage collaboration and collective production, participation and inclusion.
When the organisational forms that we occupy are so limiting and captured by the past, but were built by people; and when our internal ways of working fail to live up to the external values and behaviours we preach — they can be changed by people and led by our mission and deeper purpose. To reimagine the ways in which we work to enable us to learn and grow; able to truly respond to the complexity and urgency of our times.
Platformation seeks to shine a light on the practical — and offer a provocation for how we can begin this work together — as an open invitation and manual for people working so hard for and caring so much about civil society — consciously reimagining our organisational forms to shift our thinking narrative and ultimately power towards more equitable, rich and human ways of working that can unlock our real potential and possibility.
Finally, on 30th June, inspired by the history of the social change movement, where conversations — on street corners, cafes and houses — have harnessed connection to build solidarity and spark ideas, we are holding the first in a series of ‘Open Houses’ for civil society leaders — guided by both ‘Spaces for Growth’ and Platformation as provocations — to begin and guide discussions and conversations looking at where we are now, where we might be going in the future and how we can get there together. You can register to join us here.