4 min read

📰 🍄🐚 Organizational Mycology – April 6, 2023

📢 Intro

This week, we’re going a little longer-form in sharing what we’ve been thinking about lately: The balance between autonomy and interdependence in building communities and designing organizations. Our April Oblique Thinking Hour is coming up next week, so be sure to check out the end of the newsletter for sign-up info. As always, please share with anyone who might be interested in exercising their oblique thinking muscles!

👀 Something that caught our eye

Scientific and technological innovation don’t happen in a vacuum, or even inside a single organization. Creating cutting-edge AI, developing a life-saving medical treatment, or devising an industrial process improvement require communities of distributed and/or co-located people working toward shared goals with efficiency. We’ve been thinking lately about how these communities are formed and how people choose to work together to advance ideas, create new things, and pursue shared goals.

Our thinking on this topic is heavily shaped by our experiences working within and across organizations that depend on community creation and management, especially online and distributed communities. In other words, we’re deeply interested in work that brings together actors from various organizations and disciplines such as open science and open source software communities. We’re always trying to build deeper understandings of how we can help organizations think about how to cultivate their own communities, both as they are and as they hope for them to be.

One particular area we’re focusing on now is the balance between autonomy and interdependence in building communities. On one hand, the most effective organizations instill individual autonomy in team goal formation and work processes. Autonomy enables and unlocks innovation in teams by giving individuals freedom and safety to bring in fresh ideas. Furthermore, autonomous small teams have flexibility in how they build new ways of working, in how they end-around obstacles, and in how they create and share team-level collective intelligence. Larger teams can lean on the flywheel-effect of organizational momentum to carry themselves forward, with the added benefit of having more brain power and labor to throw at problems.

On the other hand, larger teams may not be able to tolerate as much individual autonomy given the need to coordinate work within and across teams. Managing interdependence, like giving individuals autonomy, appears to be easier in smaller teams. This is evident in academic research showing that across disciplines, small teams are able to advance the biggest “game-changing” ideas, while large teams are able to carry forward development of these ideas toward broader utility. This research has been based on social network analysis and indexing the relationships of citations across patent and published research citation data. Ed Yong has written in The Atlantic summarizing this research.

When thinking about the design or re-design of your organization, how can you enable both innovation and long-term stability/scaleability?  How do you navigate this balancing act between autonomy and interdependence?

Sometimes it’s best to think outside of the box when looking for ideas on how to design organizations and communities. Consider YouTube creatives: Many of these people are lone actors, or are running small teams to create content they share with the world. The means by which they do this is a rather brutally structured and “stable” system (i.e., YouTube–the company itself). The agreement they have with YouTube is simple: Create content that gets watched, and YouTube will reward them with money. Does YouTube sometimes abuse the control they have consolidated over creative’s access to the attention of YouTube users? Absolutely! Content policies and demonetizing are a couple of examples.  Does it also unlock some amazing content-creation and innovative use of video as a medium for creatives? Yes!

When we think about working for an institution or large organization, what autonomy might we be giving up as we subject ourselves to the systems and processes of that organization? What opportunities and flywheel effects of that organization do we gain access to? What kinds of organizations are able to sustain this balancing act between autonomy and control? How could your organization better balance autonomy and control and build more interdependence across small teams?

Looking inward at our own team, each of us at Organizational Mycology have been members of very large institutions, and have collaborated with researchers and teams across organizational, disciplinary, and geographics boundaries. We have chosen to come together, build a virtual organization, and work on problems that we’re collectively interested in. We’re each autonomous actors, with our own skills, abilities and capabilities, but together we’ve built an interdependence that is capable of much more than the sum of its parts.

We're fascinated by organizations that are able to rebuild themselves from the inside out by embracing a kind of distributed autonomy. What does it look like for an organization to trust and invite its members to own the organization's mission and vision at the edge? What is the role (is there even a role) for the central "authority" in an organization with this kind of structure?

Our next step is to document the different models used to balance autonomy and interdependence “in the wild.” We’ll be looking at as wide a variety of organizations as we can think of: the ones we know best, like open science organizations; well-established organizational models like factories and warehousing; community organizations like churches and activism groups; and emerging communities like AI ethics. And in keeping with our name, we’ll also look to the natural world: What species and systems in nature sustain themselves and others by acting with both autonomy and interdependence?

Have an organization you'd like for us to profile, or other ideas for us? PLEASE hit reply!

Engage with us

In our next Oblique Thinking Hour we'll demonstrate a collaborative problem solving technique that enables a group of any size to split into small groups, discuss shared capabilities and challenges, and feed their ideas into the larger group for discussion and synthesis. We'll be talking about general challenges and problems that anyone could relate to, but this technique can be used in any context. Come along, meet some people and have fun exploring with us!

In May we’ll be collaboratively creating a futures card deck, similar to the deck used in our Futures Thinking OTH

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