Hierarchy, teams, self-organisation, levels of learning, circularity, domination, and accountability – six articles from Georges Romme (and reflections on Requisite Agility)

I’m participating in a thing organised by Amit Arora called Requisite Agility – a sort of project, a sort of movement, which began with Amit producing some software for someone doing Requisite Organisation work (after Elliott Jaques). With the title Requisite Organisation, some people persuaded of the deep value of the underlying insights of management cybernetics said ‘hang on, we know about this stuff’, and therefore the movement has become about how we can bring together a meta perspective on RO, Agile, and the viable systems model etc – along with a lot of other stuff people work with. As you can imagine, this is a bit like herding cats to the power of x, and there are a few fundamental challenges here:
  • are we seeking an underlying theoretical/insight-based approach from which the most powerful organisational interventions can be derived, or an effective collation of multiple methodologies from which to select? (personally, I’d say the former, with the latter in its service)
  • are we integrating ‘Requisite’ (i.e. Requisite Organisation) with ‘Agility’ (i.e. the Agile movement), or looking for approaches that can effectively target approaches that help organisations to have a level of operational and strategy agility requisite to their context? (I’d say the latter)
  • are we dealing with two or more incommensurable paradigms here, or apparently opposite ways to achieve the same requisite organisational conditions? (I say the latter)
  • can we overcome our egos, tribalism, and attachment to our approaches – and all the other challenges of bringing together people with a tendency to critical thinking, a need to sell their approaches for their livelihoods, potentially post-conventional thinking, potential to collaborate or compete for work, pressures on our time and capacity, unclear shared goals, different orientations and different emotional biases, etc? (So far, maybe…)
The results of this are as yet not certain, but some signs are promising, and I feel a strong need to be involved because it matches my preoccupations so closely – and the development of my own somewhat-integrated, multi-methodological approach (see https://medium.com/@antlerboy/seeking-a-small-cohort-of-people-to-co-learn-the-redquadrant-way-tool-shed-293a8489e0d5).
I’ve just returned from a two-day ‘bootcamp’ hashing out some of this with a really great group of people (in my experience, always one of the benefits of this kind of work). In particular, we were lucky enough to have with us, on one day only, Professor Georges Romme – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Romme. Looking into his work, the nuanced understanding he has of organising in complexity, the play-off of ‘hierarchy’ and ‘self-organisation’, learning, and related issues, is really exciting. Hence this selection of some of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen so far.
The Role of Hierarchy in Self-Organizing Systems (April 1995)
This paper discusses the role of hierarchy in human systems. Two kinds of self-organizing processes are distinguished: conservative and dissipative self-organization. The former leads to rather stable and specialistic systems, whereas the latter leads to continuously changing generalistic systems. When conservative and dissipative self-organization are combined, autonomous self-organization emerges. Autonomous self-organization, characterized by intertemporal stability, appears to be fundamental to human organizations. In the context of autonomous self-organization, the traditional concept of hierarchy as a chain of command is replaced by hierarchy as a vertical sequence based on different degrees of abstraction. Moreover, a simple model shows that autonomous self-organization requires large human systems to use a variety of information processing systems, including administrative hierarchy. The model suggests hierarchy is one instrument for variety reduction among several others.

The Role of Hierarchy in Self-Organizing Systems

A Note on the Hierarchy-Team Debate (May 1996)
This note explores the debate between proponents of organizational learning who have criticized hierarchy as an obstacle to learning and those who have defended hierarchy as indispensable for large organizations. By considering hierarchy and team as ideal-typical information systems, it is argued that both teams and hierarchies are essential for organizational learning in large organizations. Teams appear to be the key learning units which are indispensable for producing and understanding novel information, and hierarchies are indispensable for processing and storing important learning results. The trade-off between teams and hierarchy can be solved by emphasizing the idea of circularity, involving the ability to switch between teams and hierarchies as complementary information systems in the context of organizational learning.

A Note on the Hierarchy-Team Debate

Organizational Learning, Circularity and Double-Linking (June 1997) 
In recent writings on organizational learning an interesting debate between proponents of team learning and those defending hierarchy as an essential condition for learning has developed. Here it is argued that teams appear to be the key learning units in organizations, but hierarchies are necessary to store and accumulate important learning results. Thus, in larger organizations teams must be integrated into some kind of hierarchy. Several authors have dealt with the problem of combining the benefits of both hierarchical and team-like structures. Attempts by Likert and Ackoff to combine the benefits of both hierarchical and team structures are based on the ideas of circularity and the (single) linking pin. A further elaboration of these solutions involves the idea of double-linking, as it is used in several Dutch organizations. Double-linking between teams provides the kind of vertical linkages which support and safeguard upward as well as downward information processing. As such, through the principle of double-linking organizations may become reflexive learning organizations.

Organizational Learning, Circularity and Double-Linking

Circular organizing and triple loop learning (June 1999)
The organizational learning literature distinguishes different levels of learning (zero learning and single, double and triple loop learning) in order to understand the complexity and dynamics of changes in policies, objectives, mental maps, and structures and strategies for learning. This article explores the case of an emerging new organizational design, the circular organization, in order to understand the role of triple loop learning. The circular model was developed on the basis of ideas about the relationship between organizational structure and behavior taken from theories of dynamic systems. Circular design precepts appear to provide a structural facilitation of single and double loop learning. In this respect, the circular design tends to act as a facilitating infrastructure for triple loop learning, that is, exploring the structural opportunities and key competences people need to participate in making well-informed choices about policies, objectives and other issues.

Circular organizing and triple loop learning

Domination, Self-Determination and Circular Organizing (September 1999)
The emergence of self-organizing forms of control, based on the idea of self-determination, have challenged traditional forms of control based on the concept of domination. As such, self-determination has been put forward as an alternative rather than as a complement to domination. This paper describes and explores the circular forms of organizing that have been emerging in several parts of the world, viewing them as a possible synthesis of two existing archetypical concepts of power-self-determination and domination. In particular, the emergence of circular organizing in the Dutch company Endenburg Elektrotechniek is documented and interpreted. This case illustrates how a circular structure can be superimposed on the administrative hierarchy, with the latter continuing to play a substantial role in controlling and managing work processes. In the absence of a single ultimate authority, organizational control is exercised through feedback rather than power. As a result of this study, circularity of power is shown to be an interesting theoretical and instrumental concept.

Domination, Self-Determination and Circular Organizing

Climbing up and down the hierarchy of accountability: Implications for organization design (November 2019)
The notion of organizational hierarchy is disputed, also in view of the rise of new organizational forms claimed to have ‘hierarchies without bosses’. To better understand the contested nature of hierarchy, this essay provides a systemic perspective on organizational hierarchy defined as a sequence, or ladder, of accountability levels. I then argue this ladder can be used in a top-down manner (e.g., as a chain of command), but also in bottom-up ways (e.g., by employees taking charge of higher-level responsibilities). Subsequently, several propositions that may guide future work in this area are formulated and the implications for organization design are fleshed out. Overall, the notion of hierarchy may become less contested by defining it as an accountability ladder which can be instantiated and used in highly different ways.

Climbing up and down the hierarchy of accountability: Implications for organization design