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The Growing Anatomy of a Human Institution v0.1

growing human institutions‘Human institutions’ are groups that have come together in significant numbers for a common social purpose and maintained a collective focus on the human relationships (within and beyond their limits) that have helped them to flourish. Most of the institutions we know – whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors – seem to have buried these relationships under an array of forms, policies, chains-of-command, jargon and other often-counter-productive formalities, claiming such structures are needed to enable growth. Too many have lost track of the ways people – unmitigated by institutions – interact amongst each other, inadvertently pushing away those less-familiar or comfortable with such structures and preventing new ideas from emerging within their ranks.

Some, however, have managed to strike the delicate balance between growth (financial, geographic-reach and otherwise) and the combined value, passion and diversity of the people that make them up.

This blog is an ongoing attempt to capture some of the recurring themes which seem to be at the core of organisations that have been able to maintain their human element, while still expanding their staff, their income or their remit.

Through the contributions of all and any who are concerned with ensuring the institutions affecting our lives are innovative, adaptable and inclusive, this document will expand on the basis of your feedback and get regularly re-posted in its latest incarnations, gradually taking on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’…

Here are the first 5 traits of a human institution I’ve chosen to highlight:

1. Flexibility
A rule is only as useful as the willingness that exists to break it, when needed. Sadly, this sentiment is often lost in organisations. The tendency to standardise everything – often benevolently, in the name of equal opportunities and fairness – creates a system that seems to prevent anyone having any advantages over anyone else, but which ends-up excluding people on the basis of its rigidity and the inevitable diversity of potential users’ circumstances.

Though rules are invariably created for good reasons, they all have their limitations. Human institutions recognise these limitations and ensure their staff are empowered to have significant flexibility to adapt to peoples’ circumstances as needed, even if that sometimes means cutting against standard protocols.

2. Mutual trust-based accountability
Accountability is far too often a one-way process that is tied to existing power-dynamics (between funders and funded groups; managers and staff, etc) which seem to assume the worst of the people told to prove their worth. Micromanagement attempts to prevent any method someone could imagine to cheat a system. As more regulations are imposed, people’s ability to work/deliver objectives is hindered by the time spent justifying how their time is spent. So they find alternative (sometimes less-ethical means) of satisfying those imposing these regulations… and no one wins.
Alternatively, being trusted gives people a strong sense of ownership and responsibility over a situation. As does a power shift that allows those traditionally held to account, to also hold their counterparts to account simultaneously. In strong human relationships (the kind that provide the greatest results, in both personal and professional settings), accountability is both trust-based and mutual. In human institutions this is also the case.

3. Autonomy
Linked to the concept of ‘trust’, is that of autonomy. The assumed practice of hierarchical management structures makes it far more difficult in most organisations for people to pursue creative and new ideas. Though a balance must be struck to achieve organisational objectives, rarely is the space given for staff to work autonomously, towards the organisation’s broader aims, but along a newly-emerging path.

Like with trust, those who feel they have room to determine their direction, often give more than those who have their direction pre-determined by someone with superior rank. Broad organisational objectives give staff more space to work to their strengths, than narrowly-defined outputs and outcomes which too often ignore the involved individuals’ passions and abilities.

4. Experiential diversity
Diversity is important from more than an equal opportunities perspective, and applies to organisations beyond the more-easily measurable differences of race, gender, religion, etc. Having an experientially diverse staff and volunteer team (of individuals who have taken different paths to ending up at your organisation) is crucial to a human institution in two other significant ways:

1) To give newcomers approaching the organisations from the outside, the sense that both people like them and a range of different people are welcome and accepted;
2) To provide a greater range of opinions and internal debate, than a group of people who have had very similar experiences in life tend to, encouraging new ways of working.

As James Surowiecki explains in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, even if a minority opinion in a group proves incorrect, “the confrontation with a dissenting view, logically enough, forces the majority to interrogate its own positions more thoroughly.” This has in itself, been found to improve decision making processes in human institutions.

5. Plain communications
The language we use to communicate and promote our work has huge consequences for the people who take it in. Many organisations seem all-too-keen to create new words and phrases and see if they can push them into circulation, without recognising that each additional piece of jargon can serve to push away someone not already ‘in the know’. Human institutions realise that effectively communicating messages and ideas is more about simplicity, than it is about complexity.

If you’re interested in discovering what you can do to create a human institution in your workplace or organisation, register for our new 1/2-day workshop in London, ‘Seeds to Grow a Human Institution’!
Register for Seeds to Grow a Human Institution in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite

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Posted in accountability and events and flexibility and jargon.


4 Replies

  1. Liam
    For me you’ve left out what I think it critical: openness, or what you be call a permeable membrane around the organisation. He might not be your cup of tea, but Peter Drucker’s argument that the network is more important than the organisation is more important than ever. Whether your aims are encouraging innovation or connecting with members, the network society gives a real advantage to those organisations that use the new technologies to share ideas, resources and problems.

    But this is culturally difficult for most organisations…an example of the new way or working would be the ultimately unsuccessful approach led by David Wilcox to collaboratively bid to host what became the Innovation Exchange. I’d say another example is what we are currently trying to do at NCVO – crowdsource our intelligence on cuts in funding.


  2. Liam Barrington-Bush Jun 28th 2010

    Hi Karl –

    You’re definitely right about openness being key to the human institution… I would add that the openness need to be 2-way, so the organisation can both receive and share information in the most honest way possible. I also wonder if it is a cause of a human institution, or a positive effect of some of the other points listed?

    Though Peter Drucker and others of his ilk may be looking at these questions from a more bottom-line-orientated perspective than mine, I think it goes to show that fundamentally, what is best for business in terms of management practice, tends to have a lot of overlap with what is best for people, inside and outside an organisation. The old models of top-down, command-and-control breed attitudes not at all conducive to productivity and efficiency, therefore no one actually benefits.

    I very much agree that technology can be a real enabler of this kind of change and can help to cut against a range of traditional resistance that an organisation may have…

    Am looking into the Crowd-sourcing the Cuts info as we speak…

    Thanks for your thoughts!


  3. Ref “The old models of top-down, command-and-control breed attitudes not at all conducive to productivity and efficiency, therefore no one actually benefits. I very much agree that technology can be a real enabler of this kind of change and can help to cut against a range of traditional resistance that an organisation may have…”
    I agree on the importance of technology in enabling a change from top-down organisational models. Adding technology in order to change “how communication is done” has all kinds of implications.

    At one extreme it just means more of the same with a greater barrage of “information” raining down from above (with perhaps a theoretical ability for people on the receiving end to feed information back up through the new “two way communication channels”).

    At another extreme it is a disruptive technology enabling massive organisational change, and new two-way flows of information. Genuine two-way flows of information work best when both sides are equally interested in what the other side has to contribute. This implies some a huge potential cultural shifts within organisations.

    New collaborative organisational models are springing up as a result of easy two-way communication. These are happening amongst people and groups who could never have come together before the Internet existed. They are true 21st century “organisations” (collaborative networks) and radically different from the established 19th and 20th century top-down bureaucratic structures – much more dynamic, spontaneous and organic.

    It will be interesting to see which established organisations simply use technology as an add-on to their existing structures, and which remodel themselves in genuinely 21st century ways.

  4. Liam Barrington-Bush Jul 8th 2010

    Very true – thanks for the comment, Pamela!

    I think that technology is definitely leading the way when it comes to demonstrating what people can achieve without traditional hierarchies and regulations, but also think that the underlying principles need to be realised, whether or not an organisation is suited to pursuing online means…

    I recently heard the phrase ‘post-digital’ fr/ @danmcquillan, looking at what happens when the social interactions initially made possible via technology, start to take root in non-online communities – sharing, collaborating, supporting, on a large scale. I very much agree with him that this is the point where real change happens…

    I try not to put too much stock in the tech side of things, when thinking about human institutions, as I don’t feel it is a pre-requisite to achieving organisations that keep people at their core. That said, it definitely helps show others what’s possible when people come together, independently!

    Thanks again 🙂

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

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