Three Ways of Getting Things Done

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The Three Ways of Getting Things Done. Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy in Organisations. by Gerard Fairtlough. Triarchy Press, 2005


"In his youth Gerard Fairtlough, the author of The Three Ways of Getting Things Done, thought, just like everyone else, that hierarchy was a natural and necessary part of organizations. It took years of working for a large multinational organization for him to begin to doubt that this was so, and more years before he started to explore the alternatives to hierarchy.

In the end he has become convinced that it is vital to question hierarchy's inevitability and to develop alternatives to it. Tinkering isn’t enough; huge shifts are needed if our businesses are to become more profitable and creative, if our government agencies are to become more effective, and if our non-governmental organizations are to make real changes in the world and act in a really responsible way.

His method in this book is to expound some general principles and to develop some general models useful in all organizations.

An organization is an entity, is a group of people working together for some purpose. Organization is also an activity, and here the meaning relates to the creation of discipline and order.

He also tells stories about organizations, real and imagined, which illustrate and enliven these principles and models.

Mostly, his arguments are based on organizational learning, on efficiency and effectiveness, on success in achieving organizational purposes, including increased profits for business. But he does not neglect the possibility that alternatives to hierarchy are morally desirable, that they could help people lead better lives.

We must not neglect the possibility that alternatives to hierarchy are morally desirable, that they could help people lead better lives.

In this, his third book on organizations, Gerard takes a radical look at organizational theory and encourages the reader to engage in a new and flexible paradigm for an effective, long-term change in organizational theory and practice."



Reading notes by Michel Bauwens, 2006:

- Today, hierarchy is a hegemonic habit, used without reflections as a blanket solution. GF's aim is to change that. It should be: "just an option". Hegemony arises when genetic pre-disposition (urge to be on top, the urge to submit, fascination with hierarchy), coincide with the interests of an elite. Discipline is not the same as hierarchy: in a chemical factory, would you rather trust disciplined professionals or people who fear their boss ? Leadership is not hierarchy! Mandela was in prison, did not give commands, yet was the undisputed leader of the ANC.

So , what does an organization actually need ?

1) Coordination of ends and means

- Organizations must have a common purpose, coordinated actions to achieve it, and endure in time. Coordination of ends and means requires four features: 1) system ; 2) culture ; 3) leadership and 4) power.

- Regarding systems: enabling ones should be distinguished from coercive systems. A proper enabling system is light and strong.

- Culture insures common mental models; they are similarly either coercive (= fear-based); or enabling.

- Leadership involves sense-making, vision, and persuasion. Dispersed leadership is a distinct possibility. Power is always present but dynamic. It comes in many forms and does not have to coincide with hierarchy. But it is an invisible feature.

Finally, exit and voice are two strategies to deal with an organization, i.e. either voicing differences, or quitting.

There are only 3 ways to rule:

- 1) Hierarchy as 'single rule'

- 2) Heterarchy as 'multiple rule', or shared rule, or a balance of power. Fe. partnerships, strategic alliances, the separation of powers doctrine

- 3) Responsible Autonomy exists when a individual, or team, has the freedom of decision, but is responsible for its outcome. F.e. the market provides accountability for firms, peer review for scientists.

Complex evolving systems are systems where the order derives from internal operations, rather than from external design or control. They are adaptable and exhibit self-organization, emergent properties, and the generation of new order.

Encapsulation is the process that creates market systems within societies. It requires accepted rules, trust that others will abide by them, clear boundaries for every capsule; an openness so that abidance can be monitored.

Critique is the monitoring by external agencies, i.e. the guarantee of accountability.

Reliable methods for solving disputes are equally necessary.

In conclusion, RESPONSIBLE AUTONOMY requires the combination of:

   - 1) encapsulation
   - 2) critique
   - 3) dispute resolution

Heterarchy requires a lot of interaction between sub-units, responsible autonomy much less!

The author adds that these are 3 ideal types which are never encountered in a pure form, but always appear in different blends. If there is only a triarchy of getting things done, then its study could be called 'triarchics'.

Adaptation of an organism to its environment is hierarchical; co-evolution whereby elements in a network influence each other is heterarchical. None of the three alternatives is best in all circumstances: the issue is finding the right mix.

He then compares the contingency theories of Lex Donaldson, with those of Thomas Malone, which makes a direct link between organizational formats and communication.

In stage 3, command and control is replaced by 'coordinate and cultivate': Malone stresses that coordination does not require control. After describing how different moral syndromes affect the use of hierarchy, GF disccuses the contingency of sie, ie. the Dunbar limit of 150. GF believes that heterarchy is best for Commercial organization and Responsible Autonomy ideal for Guardian organizations.

Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith wrote a book, The End of Management, in which they saw that "managers must abandon the luxury of prestige, and employees must forget the luxury of irresponsibility."

GF then reviews which political mechanisms can be imported into organization, in order to achieve heterarchy. Voting (democracy) is one of them; the separation of powers another. Job rotation, regularly handling over leadership is useful as well. The Athenian method of selection by lottery, as is decoupling reward from hierarchy.

Decision-making must be studied in at least three phases:

   - 1) agenda setting
   - 2) small group investigation
   - 3) presentation to and decision by, the larger group

What helps Responsible Autonomy ?

Heterarchy cannot be infinite because of the high cost of negotiation, and this is where responsible autonomy comes in: you divide up the work in micro-chunks, which have autonomy, and to not have to be negotiate.

Key decisions here are:

   - 1) scale of unit ?
   - 2) mode of encapsulation: boundaries and responsibilites of each unit
   - 3) critique and accountability procedures
   - 4) procedures for adjudication (may be a single individual)

Box: The Three-Stage Theory of Technological Evolution of Thomas Malone

- Stage 1 is based on technology like horses and sailing ships; it allows for the organization of relatively small territorial units, that are mostly un-connected

- Stage 2 is based on railways, steam ships and telegraphhs, and allows for the centralized management of large groups.

- Stage 3, with the internet as its infrastructure, allows both large groups AND decentralization, it is an opportunity for democratic governance.

Box: Lex Donaldson's Contingency Theory of Organizations

Donaldson distinguishes the 3 polarities of formal vs informal, organic vs mechanistic, and decentralized vs centralized which gives different possibilities.

- the bureaucratic mode, which is formal and mechanistic, f.e. a govt agency

- the mechanistic, technologically fixated, centralized production without autonomy, f.e. in the assembly line

- the organic autonomy and technological uncertainty of a R&D lab

- the simple informal personal management of a SME.

Box: Jane Jacobs on the Two Contrasting Systems of Survival

- 1. Systems dependent on the control of monetary resources

       - The 'Commercial Moral Syndrome': 'shun force, respect contracts, be open to innovation'.


- 2. Systems dependent on violence

       - The 'Guardian Moral Syndrome': "shun trading, respect hierarchy, loyalty, and obedience to tradition."