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Want collaboration to work? Here's how to structure it

How to organise for IMPACT not just OUTPUTS

Things only appear complicated if you are trying to make them simple.

The truth is that everything is inherently complex and interdependent and human beings are naturally pre-disposed to intuitively get that.

Complexity (and it’s corollary, confusion) is more of an experience than a reality. Something that occurs only because we want straight-lines and a sense of control.

This is the view of Dr. Tyson Yungakapore in his seminal book "Sand Talk: How Indigenous thinking can save the world". For people interested in working with complex systems - like water - this is a fascinating perspective.

From a personal perspective, it implies that you need to 'lean back' (to invert Sheryl Sanderberg's eponymous book HERE) and allow yourself to see the interdependencies without trying to force the issue.

That's all very well for an individual, but how do you organise for dance better with complexity (without it becoming too complicated!)??

Organising to dance with complexity?

I started a Stormwater futures systems mapping seminar a few months back by stating:

There is no way you can 'fix' this problem. What we are here to do today is learn the dance steps better - learn how to dance with the system.

We are increasingly interested in using our working hours to create an Impact in the world, to change things that are beyond our immediate control for the better, and not simply to produce more and better Outputs. However, the deeper we dig into influencing change the more complex is the world we have to work with: more stakeholders, ambiguous goals. It is hard to measure, account for and terribly challenging to fund!

The first thing to recognise when organising to dance better is that:

 you can’t organise for both consistent and reliable outputs AND creative, emergent impacts at the same time[1]!

Hierarchy, organising for outputs


Hierarchical structures are increasingly derided because the world is getting more complex and they do not facilitate the kind of flexibility and creativity we increasingly need. However, we keep organising our response to complex challenges with hierarchy, and not only because of habit, because it works.

Last week, I wrote about the core values that underpin organising for change. This week it's the organising principals.

However, if your goal is broader and the team you want to work in/lead is more interested in influencing impact, hierarchical organisation won't work so well.In fact, as I imagine many of you could attest, working across silos, sectors and the kind of rigid application of process you need to deliver consistently, you may find yourself spending more time fighting your own structures than actually getting the work done.


[1] Both results can be achieved by the same people, but we can't think both ways at the same time. It's a bit like deciding to fly to Bali for a holiday. You get excited talking about the possibilities and then someone mentions budgeting or scheduling. Watch the enthusiasm for the holiday crumple. Both conversations are essential, but you can't be both at the same moment. Organising for change requires this recognition.

Heterarchy - Organising for Impact

However, if you want to go broader and focus your attention on Impacts, you need an alternative organising principle. Luckily, we do have experience in this organising principle also.

The key is to get that it works well for some things, and not for others.


Organising hierarchically is appropriate for delivering consistent and reliable outputs.

Since delivering reliable and consist outputs is critical to a well-functioning society, it is entirely appropriate that we continue to organise our work and institutions this way.

broken image

In this model, leadership is distributed and the locus of power is not stable but rather it shifts around depending on the circumstances.

We have a lot of experience with organising from this principle. For example, the formal checks and balances between the three arms of our government where the executive, legislature or judiciary have the upper hand at different times and for different reasons. The game of rock/paper/scissors is an heterarchical system where what it takes to win changes every round. The European Union and the World Health Organisation are both heterarchical institutions created to deal organically with complexity.

If you want to have an 'Impact' we need to understand and apply this principle to how we organise at the very local level and within our institutions, as well.

Where hierarchies focus on funding structure, heterarchies are effective by catalysing new stories. This is not always a simple matter because these stories can be quite fundamental (see this piece in Forbes to see how we can upskill in this department). However, just structuring a team this way can produce spectacular results.

An example of how do this plays out - transforming aSenior Leadership Team

The last few weeks I've been working with a friend in a Water Corporation who is reorganised their Senior Leadership Team (SLT) to operate this way. Previously, the whole team (over 25 people) met monthly with a brief to have eyes-across the whole business. It wasn't really working. The meetings could be talk-fests. People disagreed on who should be in SLT and who shouldn't etc. etc. Not much go done.

We started the transformation by stating that:

We are shifting the SLT from a formal team to an internal brand!

Under 'Brand SLT', ad hoc groups of essentially self-volunteering individuals are now starting to coalesce and work on specific problems then dissolve when the work is done.

Mobilising the brand gives them access to the resources and authority, but doesn’t constrain them to organise, or even meet, in a pre-determined way.

Gone are the bi-monthly talkfests. Work is now increasingly focussed and cross-institutional linkages are getting stronger every day. In this environment, the focus is increasingly on the broader Impact or the work than on specific outputs.

Trust is the key

The currency of Heterarchical models of organisation is Trust; building and managing effective relatedness (note, not relationships… see HERE for a video on this distinction). Traditional management skills are less valuable then relationship skills and the ability to spin a good story.

In an Hierarchical model, you don't need a lot of trust. People have clear and deliverable outputs. Accountability is easily traced and success pre-defined.

The key is that we need BOTH models, but if you want change, you need to structure your approach more on the basis of Heterarchy. Hierarchical structures are better if you want more reliability and control.

The biggest danger occurs when we try to do both at the same time.

My invitation to you:

Where in your organisation would a more Heterarchical approach to deliver better results?

If you want my thoughts, feel free to contact me you will be able to find a time HERE or just email me.