In preparation for our first course this June, we’re gathering together some writings from the teachers – starting with this piece, written in 2013 for a blog that has since vanished into digital dust.
Once upon a time, organisations had hard edges: it was clear who was on the inside and who was on the outside. This might still be true for legal purposes, but it no longer reflects the reality in many cases.
I’m thinking, in particular, of all those organisations and projects whose existence is embedded within a community. That could be a geographical community like the one around the West Norwood Feast – the community-owned street-market that Spacemakers helped to create in south London – or a distributed community like the one that has grown around the Dark Mountain Project over the past four years.
In cases like these, instead of a hard boundary, what you have are concentric circles of association: layers of people to whom the organisation matters in varying degrees.
People move in and out of these circles over time, as their relationship to the organisation changes. This can be because things have changed for them personally: a new job, family circumstances. Or it can be because, as they see it, the organisation has changed: it no longer matters to them in the way that it once did.
The feeling that something matters is hard to measure. Of course, the conventional economic answer is that this is what markets do: where we put our money is the measure of what really matters to us. But embedded organisations can’t rely on money as a proxy, in this way, or not to the same extent as organisations with hard boundaries. Instead, if they are going to thrive, those responsible for such organisations need to pay more attention to the experiences of those involved, including the parts of their experience which are hardest to measure.
When an organisation matters to people, it feels alive. You can see this in the way people talk about it: not just in the words they use, but in their expressions.
The power of embedded organisations is that they are held together by other things than money. These other things often include time, energy, belief, attention, stories and ideas. Only rarely can they live without money, but they do not disappear instantly if, for some reason, the money stops. This gives them a kind of resilience which is rare in seemingly larger and stronger organisations.
The danger for embedded organisations is that they can be growing and dying at the same time. According to their finances, they are doing better, yet they no longer feel like they matter. The fire is going out.
The art of creating and sustaining embedded organisations involves paying attention to the life of the organisation. When those who are close to the centre of those concentric circles come together, do they still look forward to seeing each other? As people talk about the different elements within the organisation’s work, at which points do you see them come alive?
When, for some reason, the fire burns low within an organisation, people begin to drift outwards. This is not their fault: it is their way of signalling to those closest to the core that something needs to change.
In such a situation, the nature of the relationships that brought the organisation to life come into focus.
Usually, there are one or two people who stand at the centre of the organisation, who will be the last ones left if things go wrong, carrying the consequences on their shoulders. It’s not that these people own the organisation or can control it, but that they have a particular responsibility for it. (Because the organisation started out as their dream, an idea that was thrown into conversation and caught light.)
Yet it is also true that the organisation could never have come alive if it weren’t for the circles of others who were drawn to it, who saw their own hopes or ideas reflected in what was starting to happen, and who between them began to make it real.
When the fire burns low, those at the core can feel let down. They may start to complain about the lack of commitment of those around them, the disappearance of fair-weather friends. The feeling is understandable, but it has to be set aside.
If you find yourself in that situation, I suggest thinking of yourself as the founder of a start-up that has run out of investment. Your community, the people who helped you make the dream real, are your angel investors. For whatever reason, you have burned through their investment, without reaching sustainability. If you are going to turn this around, you will need them to make a further investment.
Like any investors, your community will not be overly impressed by how hard you have worked or how much you have sacrificed. What will catch their attention is your ability to put together a story that is large enough and real enough: to make sense of what has been achieved so far, to be honest about the mistakes that have been made, and at the same time to put these mistakes into perspective by reconnecting with why you all felt this mattered in the first place. From there, you need to be able to make a case for what can be done together going forward and why this still matters.
(I should say, the metaphor of investment is only a metaphor. I’m not usually keen on treating intangible, hard-to-measure things as if they are forms of capital, but in this case, it does fit with my experience and what I’ve seen in other people’s projects and organisations.)
Embedded organisations, organisations that matter, tend to be those that have the greatest resilience against the unexpected, against the disruption of familiar systems and structures. If we are heading into a world of increasing disruption and uncertainty, the skills of creating and sustaining such organisations are going to take on an increasing importance. (These are also the skills of getting things done without relying on people being paid or ordered to do things.)
So learn to pay attention to where the life is within your projects or organisations. Be willing to turn down the sensible option – doing more of the same, but larger – when you notice that it represents only lifeless growth. Don’t blame others when the life is going out of something, but go back to the story at the heart of it. See if you can retell that story in a way that will bring life to it again.
And don’t be afraid to admit defeat: it is better to walk away from something that is dead than to keep pouring your energy into it, even if it still looks like it’s growing. If you have been paying attention to the life within your work, you will have learned things that you can take with you. And, in my experience, the parts that mattered often seem to come back, in a new form, somewhere down the road.