• Problematizing the Chaordic Design Process

    “Chaordic” is a term coined by Dee Hock to refer to the state of optimal equilibrium between chaos and order. Too much disorder (lack of rules, policies, procedures, etc.), and employees don’t know what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to go about doing it. Too much structure, on the other hand, produces a rigidity that stifles creativity and initiative. Both are demoralizing for employees. Both squander talent and opportunity.

    Hock recommends a “chaordic design” process that will establish this equilibrium and that will result in fostering a dynamic and thriving organizational ecosystem. That process goes like this:

    1. Everyone getting crystal clear about the purposes of the organization
    2. Establishing principles that will support those purposes, and which provide a framework for decision-making
    3. Identifying the participants/stakeholders who should be considered as a result of those purposes and principles.
    4. Determining and establishing the organizational concept [or structure and functions] that will best deliver on the purposes and principles.
    5. Establishing a constitution that embodies all of the above and which details everyone’s rights and duties and the nature of the relationship between participants.
    6. Develop the suite of practices to achieve the purposes of the organization.

    Because everyone is participating in these exercises, and because they occur over long and/or intense stretches of time, Hock believes that they will produce a sense of internal coherence and trust that will produce the right environment for both cooperation and competition, for following the rules and exercising creativity and initiative.

    In this blog I argue that the chaordic design process is really just a recommendation for an optimal ordering process. It does not contain any mechanism to sustain the tension between order and disorder over time, nor is there any test to know when that equilibrium has been lost, nor is there any corrective process for re-establishing that lost equilibrium.

    1. Both the purpose and principles are processes that bind employees into a unified and coherent direction. The principles are the criteria against which decisions are framed and action is judged. But principles are curious things. When they are highly entrenched it is less about coherence and more about conformance. And it is a more insidious kind of conformance than conformance to practice. Breaches to principles or values are far more serious because it is a threat against the purposes, against the collective meaning of the tribe. They are characterized less as performance errors and more as ethical shortcomings. They invite judgment and censure. Employees who question principles or who don’t observe them can become ostracized, stripped of career advancement opportunities, and/or terminated. This only drives deeper cultural conformance. It does not supply a space for plurality or eclecticism, and it does not legitimate the existence of constructive tensions.

    When principles are mostly dormant and are not enforced, it may be because the organization recognizes complexity. Of the hundreds of principles and values that may be called upon to support “purpose,” it is unrealistic to think only a handful are sufficient, or that the decisions being made across the organization are not informed by myriad principles and values. The insistence of conformance to a handful of principles is also dangerous because it can legitimize a particular ideology or the appropriateness of ideological entrenchment.

    In establishing a binding sense of purposes/principles, chaordic design provides for potent coherency and order, but it does not create conditions to nurture their opposites. Should there be a principle around questioning principles? Around drawing from other values or principles when the purpose calls for it? Or, when there are higher purposes that are greater than an organization’s purpose? Are the principles something to inform thinking or are they absolute? Should there be routines to regularly challenge/question them? Are there additional principles that should be swapped in or trialed? How do we know when the purpose or principles have become too dogmatic and restrictive? What do we do then? It can’t be simply about establishing a new set of principles or we are just making an adjustment to the ordering process.

    1. The constitution, organizational concepts and practices help to order operational processes in order to deliver on the purpose. They are about adding “the right kinds” of structure—policies, processes, functions, etc., that will serve the purpose pronounced by the collective. None of these processes introduce any inherently destabilizing mechanisms or functions; they are all about consolidation. In time, as it goes with organizations, there will be accretions of structure—more policies, more procedures, more roles, more codification of how the parts relate, more practice definition, etc.

    The natural predilection of systems is towards order. Policies get written and amended, they don’t get unwritten. We add to our processes and procedures, we don’t eliminate them. We introduce more and more training regimens, communication protocols, and labour rules. Getting better is about getting clearer; it’s about consistent practice. It’s about saying more, not keeping quiet. Whatever the stated purpose and principles of organizations, the systems that underpin them have tacit values around predictability, consistency and control, and this is what they are driven to achieve. How else can the purpose be consistently and excellently achieved?

    There is nothing intrinsic to Chaordic Design that answers this tendency. It speaks more to what sort of ordering process will give an organization a great start, but it fails to recognize the forces and currents that drive increasing order in systems, and it does not recommend measures to countervail them.

    I like to use the analogy of an empty room to signify a start-up organization or project. The tendency is to fill it with functioning furniture (mission, purpose, values/principles, roles, policies, procedures, practices, etc.). Once you begin, three things happen: (1) the furniture has a rebound effect on setting the possibilities and culture of the space, (2) the furniture determines what other furniture is needed/missing—logical concomitants that reinforce the shape the organization or program will take, (3) the furniture keeps coming until the room gets too cluttered to move. I suspect this trend is unavoidable, but chaordic design does not slow the trend of cluttering the room, it doesn’t introduce random furniture that can provide creative tensions, it doesn’t recommend culling of the clutter that accumulates, and it doesn’t throw a switch that tells us the room is a disgrace and it’s time to start over in a new one.

    It is interesting that to be human is to experience oneself as a contradiction. These contradictions lie at the heart of religions and the humanities. We are free and not free, divine and fallen, body and soul, animal and moral beings, etc. We have conflicting needs, desires and beliefs. The lack of a sense of a coherent self results in anxiety. How shall we act under such circumstances? Yet while these tensions are features of being human, we do not tolerate them in our human systems. They are emphatically resolved or ignored. This is probably why we see pendulum shifts in organizations, sectors and industries—because we cannot occupy the space in between. The trick, the greatest trick of all, will be legitimating angst in organizations. It will be about:

      1. learning to erect enough structure, but not too much
      2. providing the necessary clarity, but leaving behind the necessary ambiguity
      3. everyone being a little unhappy and uncomfortable, but understanding why
      4. managing through a combination of standards and curious conversations
      5. having guides to one’s job but not instruction manuals
      6. preserving the balance between techne and experiment.

    Unfortunately, while “chaord” is a useful metaphor with which to think about organizational dynamics, and while it recognizes the need to sustain the tension between order and disorder, “chaordic design” does not supply that equilibrium. It doesn’t confront the ordering forces at work within human organizations and it doesn’t know how to guard against them. While ad hoc solutions may be proffered  by practitioners, they are not integral to the process. 

  • Problematizing Scale in the Social sector (Part 1): Expanding Conceptions

    The social innovation community is entranced by scale. Foundations, incubators, accelerators, governments, social investors and thought leaders are consistently driving expectations that new solutions should be designed and supported to achieve scale. But, what scale are we talking about?

    Currently, there are three types of scaling movements that tend to dominate the literature: scaling-up, scaling-out, and scaling-deep. Proposed solutions that promise one or more types, are more likely to be preferred by funders than those that don’t.



    Source: Darcy Riddell and Michele-Lee Moore (2015)

    1) Scaling-up consists of shifting the laws and policies of systems in order to either remove oppressive precepts, or to introduce game-changing rules that will bring social benefit to large numbers of people.

    2) Scaling-out is about growing or replicating a solution to other geographic areas, including lateral scaling to new target populations.

    3) Scaling-deep involves activations intended to promote transformation at the sociocultural level of individuals, organizations or communities.

    Scaling-up and out are often confused and the terms used interchangeably, probably because they are fundamentally about spreading or growing solutions in order to bring social benefit to as many people as possible; they are about numbers.

    Whereas these forms of scale dominate the social innovation literature, little is comparatively said about scaling-deep. Scaling-deep recognizes that there is power in transforming culture. It acknowledges that interventions at the level of meaning and culture can prove powerful axes for levering change. Sadly, there are relatively few solutions that are attempted in this space and even fewer of which are understood by funders or investors.

    We argue that:

    These three conceptual models of scale are not exhaustive and that there are additional ways to think about scale: scree-scaling and the scaling of conditions (versus solutions).

    The normative privileging of solutions that can scale out or up is short-sighted and can actually impede impact.

    We propose that if we are to use the language of scale—and we think it is a legitimate way to think about social impact—we add two other critical form of scale, Scree-scaling, and Scaling initial conditions.

    4) Scree-scaling

    This conception of scale is less about growing and spreading single solutions and more about legitimizing and cultivating many “small” ones. It represents the view that system change is less likely to occur as a result of a few big ideas than by the accumulation of many little ones.

    The proliferation of local solutions not only results in more relevant services that are more likely to achieve results, but they supply the larger system with a pluralistic menu of creative approaches and they put pressure on that system to be able to sustain and support them. They also begin to shift cultural norms and expectations because there are a lot more agents driving new visions, rather a handful of visions being introduced and/or imposed by a few.

    The expectation that a worthwhile solution ought to be spreadable or replicable beyond the proximal area that gave birth to it is simply wrong.

    Yes, we should glean what we can from small solutions in order to share and disseminate creative approaches to complex challenges and, when we can, accomplish scale with some of them. But the signature of a worthy idea is not necessarily that it is scalable. Not every private business is scalable nor is it desirable to scale every business. The backbone of national economies is small businesses, not giant corporations, and the seduction of the growth model is as problematic in the social sector as it is within the private sector.

    A preoccupation with populating the innovation landscape with scalable ideas is actually inimical to achieving the deeper system change because (1) it limits creativity to ideas that work across multiple geographies, conditions and populations—a far more restrictive criterion than one that invites ideas to proliferate in diverse local contexts; (2) given the complexity and diversity of human beings and the social landscapes they inhabit, we see the need for pluralistic solutions, not homogenous ones that need to be retrofitted to different contexts; (3) emphasizing and supporting only scalable solutions deprives social change of the power of small solutions to have a cumulative effect; (4) the more system change or improved outcomes rests in the hands of a few, the less likely it is to occur; the more everyone can play a role, irrespective of the size or scope of their solution, the more we will see the change we are after.

    A sociocultural landslide is not about the few boulders loosened down a gorge, it is about the millions of stones that sweep down like a tide and transfigure the landscape. In the end, as compelling and inspirational as single, scaled solutions can be, it’s not just about the few—it’s about the many.

    5) Scaling initial conditions.

    Within the private sector there are a range of public and private mechanisms to support and scale innovation—access to capital, data, talent and connectivity (knowledge dissemination and networking).

    None of this infrastructure exists within the social sector, or at least, not in any sort of coherent way. If we want to see a verdant proliferation of solutions, and if we want to see them succeed, we need to attend to the ground that gives birth to them and that nourishes them.

    Program grants for innovation are limited are unsuitable for many reasons, not the least of which is that they invest in projects and not infrastructure. Applications ask for solutions that are ready to be delivered, but innovation emerges out of a social R&D engine that begins with questions (What is the problem? What assumptions, values, conditions and practices are sustaining it? What ideas might work? What interactions can we test?). Applications typically require respondents to identify multi-year activities, objectives and outcomes; social R&D is about making frequent pivots based on ongoing insights.

    Worse, there is an assumption that organizations have the capacity to deliver innovation, as though running a new program or pilot is the equivalent of engaging in innovation.Nothing could be further from the truth. With few exceptions, we would argue that the public sector, non-profits and charities lack the culture, competencies, capacities and resources to engage in meaningful social R&D. As such, the ambition for innovation is severely hampered.

    Social service organizations are not designed to develop novel solutions, nor to embed these solutions into their organizations and to continuously iterate them. Were a novel solution to emerge, it would be operationalized within a bureaucratic ethos that cannot help but neutralize what makes it unique. A truly novel idea will cut against the grain of most every function within an organization—human resources, risk management, communications, finance, philosophy and values, etc. It will chafe fiercely, and complicated systems have an internal imperative to achieve internal coherency and consistency. The cultures and competencies required for delivery are simply not the same as those required for development.

    What passes for innovation in the social services sector tend to be “small-i,” incremental innovations that occur within a well-established paradigm.

    It is unreasonable to expect innovation to occur when there is no discernable social R&D infrastructure and when those proposing solutions are managers steeped in the service paradigm. Where consultancies do enter the picture, they tend to produce small, project-based solutions, but do not influence or contribute to organizational capacity for ongoing social R&D.

    If we want to see more innovative solutions, we need to scale the conditions that produce and nourish them. It’s not about a few good ideas that somehow make it; it’s about tending the ground that could produce a bounty. By building a social R&D infrastructure within the public/social sector, we nourish the conditions from which many innovations can grow and find purchase.