Do You Work in an Organizational Anarchy?

Understanding exactly how you come to a decision is a complex undertaking. Understanding how organizations make decisions is even more challenging! However, when you understand how organizations make decisions you can lead more effectively.

Both effective and ineffective organizations make decisions. What is of interest to organizational leaders is understanding whether their decision making processes lead them to make good or bad choices. Organizational anarchy is a term used to describe organizations that have a poor decision-making environment. This model gives us a means of discovering how to avoid bad decisions. Researchers have discovered that organizational anarchies share three common ingredients.

  1. Unclear goals. The organization operates with a variety of inconsistent and ill-defined goals. In lieu of having goals, organizational anarchies are driven by a loose collection of ideas. Lacking a coherent structure, they discover their preferences after they act. They fail to base their choices and actions on intentional goals (Cohen, March & Olsen).
    • The antidote to this anarchy is achieved by goal definition. Clearly defined and consistent goals eliminate ambiguity.
  2. Non-existent or ambiguous processes. In organizational anarchies processes are not understood by members. Instead, they operate on the basis of simple trial-and-error procedures. These procedures are not intentional but rather,  are the residue of learning from the past experience or accidents, and are sometimes pragmatic inventions of necessity (Cohen, March & Olsen).
    • The antidote to this anarchy is achieved through process clarity. How, when and where things should be done decreases these harmful practices and the tendency to recreate the wheel.
  3. Poorly-defined roles. In organizational anarchies employees vary in the amount of time and effort they devote. This creates fluidity or an inconsistent state. When the roles of an organization are uncertain and changing we struggle with accountability and execution (Cohen, March & Olsen).
    • The antidote to this anarchy is role definition.  Determining who is responsible for what combats the tendency to let things slide or wait for someone else to do it.

Most of us have worked in situations that can be described as an organizational anarchy. In fact, organizational anarchy will describe a portion of almost any organizations activities (Cohen, March & Olsen). However, the model of organizational anarchy presents us with a simple litmus test to examine our decision-making culture. Understanding the ingredients of healthy organizations is not complex. However, they are much more difficult to implement. But drifting into organizational anarchy is a much higher price to pay than the cost of investing in goal definition, process clarity and role definition.


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Jeff Suderman is an anti-anarchist, consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice. Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen.
Administrative Science Quarterly – Vol. 17, No. 1 (Mar., 1972), pp. 1-25.

The Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice: An Agent-based Reconstruction. Alessandro Lomim and Guido Fioretti. Simulation Modelling Practice and Theory – Volume 16, Issue 2 (February 2008), pp. 192–217.



The Difference Between Complicated and Complex

I hear the word complex a lot. It helps us describe things like the paradoxical global village. It explains the rapid pace of change. It justifies lifestyles filled with too little time. However, when we use the word complex, we usually consider it a synonym of another word – complicated. A recent article helped me understand that there is an important difference between them (Steve Moore).

Complicated – Something with many interconnecting parts. Intricate. Example – Imagine a rigorous math problem on a white board. This is complicated.

Complex – A system of interconnected parts that constantly change. Fluid. Example – If an ocean beach lifeguard leaves their tower for 30 minutes, they may come back to a very different scenario.

I believe that a shift towards complexity is an important trend of our era. It is our new normal. Personally and organizationally, we are encountering more complexity. Most of my conversations with clients and business leaders reveal complex problems like:

  • Working with an intergenerational workforce,
  • Developing strategy which will be effective in five years,
  • Improving organizational culture, and
  • Increasing organizational alignment.

As a result, I believe that we must place an increased emphasis on addressing organizational complexity. We must also equip ourselves with the right tools to solve complex challenges.

An old adage states that to a three year old with a brand new hammer, everything appears as a nail. The principle behind this maxim is different challenges require different solutions. If we try to solve complicated issues by using complex solutions it is like using a hammer to insert a screw. If we try to solve complex problems with complicated solutions it is like smoothing drying cement with a screwdriver.

Here are some simple ways to differentiate the challenges you encounter:

Complicated and Complex Graphic 1

If these differences are true, then we must do two things. First, we must correctly identify the problem we are encountering – is it complicated or complex? Next, we need to assign the problem to an individual or team which is equipped with the correct skillset to solve the problem.

Complicated and Complex Graphic 2

Complicated problem solvers are people like Albert Einstein or Henry Ford. Complex problem solvers are people like Desmond Tutu or Elon Musk. We must avoid the temptation to prioritize the importance of these roles. They are of equal value. They simply exemplify the need to use different skills for different challenges.

We live in a complicated world. We also live in a complex world. I believe that, in general, our educational model trains most effectively for complicated problems. Furthermore, an increasingly interconnected world will require us to develop our complexity muscles.

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Jeff Suderman is a complex futurist, consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

Sources: Steve Moore (2012). Seize the Vuja de.  Missio Nexus.



Five Uplifting Things No One Tells You about Moving Abroad

I recently shared an article titled 5 Depressing Side Effects No One Tells You About Moving Abroad. For those who have moved or lived abroad, it provides some interesting insights about this life-changing event. While this article did an effective job highlighting the negatives, there are also positive aspects to a big decision like this. My colleague and friend, Dr. Dustin Knutson, read this post and wrote a personal response to it. One year ago he moved his family to the Middle East and has firsthand experience about living abroad – the good and the bad. In our global economy, this type of experience is becoming more common. Understanding the implications of a global lifestyle is helpful for all of us. Next month I begin teaching a doctoral course on Global Leadership and I will be sharing this content with my students soon! I know you will enjoy Dustin’s guest post today.

Many expatriates (expats) know that contrary to popular opinion, moving abroad is not necessarily a selfish choice. Expats are people who like to live life-outside-the-box. And they can love like no one else if you let them.

I want to tell you about five uplifting benefits that no one tells you about living abroad. To really understand, you need to experience it for yourself, even if for just a week on a visit. But for those who have not or cannot do so, I’ll try to give you an insight into the good side of expat life.

1. You learn to coach your own mind about how to think. This empowers you.

You learn the power of your own attitude and how it determines your longevity and survival. Well, almost. After you stay long enough in another country, you’ll find there are two types of people. Let’s call this a “desert experience” because it draws every last bit of water out of you and tests you, accentuating your strengths and flaws, leaving you emptied. That’s when you choose with whom, how, and what you’ll surround yourself with to fill the void.

The first type includes the survivors who go abroad and have survived because they have developed an unwavering commitment to see life optimistically. They are so passionate about their perspective that if you hang around them and start complaining, you’ll find that they will suddenly disappear, almost without warning.

They might smile out of the corner of their mouth, bite their tongue, and nod at your first complaint. They may even respond politely with a subtle difference in opinion or another way to look at the situation. They may say something like, “At least…” and then make a comparison to something worse that makes you regret complaining. These people are subtle encouragers and life-givers. They will bring joy to being abroad, if you let them. They will become your best friends.

The second type is a group filled with perpetual whiners. They attract each other and feed on each other like cannibals.

They live from the perspective that life is all about them. They believe they deserve all sorts of things just because they exist. These are the people who typically move abroad to find something better for themselves. They are often unsatisfied by their past and seek to make their journey all about themselves. These are the few that give expats a bad rap.

Ironically, they sometimes stick around even though you would think it would be easier to leave. Those who stay, continually find newbie complainers that have just arrived. They are excellent at proselytizing. Even those who begin optimistically find it easy to latch onto the complainer’s addictive ways of viewing the world while they are in their “discovery phase” in a new country. This is very hard to watch.

If you want to survive and grow, you must quickly choose which camp you will associate with when living and working abroad. You must set reminders to coach yourself into positive ways of thinking. You must learn to create exit strategies to avoid long conversations with complainers. After all, no matter where you live, the grass can always be greener somewhere else.

2. You will face many choices which will permanently change you and you will also be permanently changed without choice. This enlightens you. 

You have countless opportunities to see others as equals or better than you are. When you make the difficult decision to deny yourself and choose to serve others, you will embrace a perspective which provides fulfillment and purpose. One way to do this is by seeking to learn or re-learn what you thought you knew.

Discovering new ways to eat, cook, clean, dress, drive, work, play, dance, and converse is intriguing.IMG_0437 You find that you put off your old self in some ways in favor of a newer, different self. Some of it happens out of necessity, some of it by choice. In either case, you adapt. As you do, your mind realizes that “my way” isn’t the highway but only one way. Furthermore, you learn that there are many who view “my way” as the odd choice.

Expat life means you will end up in a different place, defined by your convictions but also flavored by your experiences. We live in a world full of unique spices. And there are many of them which can season a steak to perfection.

3. Opportunities to serve using skills you have (but didn’t know were rare or valuable) are often brought to light. This encourages you.

What may have been taken for granted previously can be cherished in a new land and new context. Skills and processes are transferable, but only to an extent. You will be required to adapt them. Many times, being flexible and adapting old ideas to new cultures is appreciated. However, if it is done incorrectly or without cultural sensitivity, it isn’t appreciated.

There’s almost nothing as great as finding something you do well to be valued like a precious commodity in a new place. As a result, you feel valued. Your spirits are lifted. You see that you were made for such a time as this.

However, this experience need not be limited to new countries or foreign lands. The same concept also applies to a new organization or business. When it is used in the proper context and made practical, it can reinvigorate your life.

4. The way you live your life will speak more than the words you say – and it will be noticed by others. This surprises you.

People often quote Ghandi who said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and Jesus who taught, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31, NIV).

When I am thirsty, I want a drink. However, offering a bottle of water to a parched, hard-working man who looks exhausted in the desert sun during the day during Ramadan isn’t a gift. To a Muslim, it could be considered offensive and a temptation to sin by breaking a mandated fast. It could even be considered cruel. What’s my point? Seek to understand first and then act. I do not want to be tempted to do something that is against my beliefs either. It takes time to learn that you need to offer that water after sundown.

On the other hand, offering a simple “hello” can brighten someone’s day. It is a simple way to show that you are interested in more than yourself. I’ve found this to be a pleasant experience that starts friendships with people from all over the world. It has become a simple gateway that enables me to give and bless others in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.

Any expat will tell you that things which seem to be common sense in your culture can be unacceptable in another. One thing remains certain. The way you live your life will be noticed, whether you want it to or not. The key is to be respectful. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything or changing your convictions. It simply means loving someone else enough to give them the freedom to believe as they choose.

5. You can overcome distance. This helps you to know that you’re never alone.

Long distances make you fight to keep relationships intact. You learn who your true friends are and who you really care about. Relationships anywhere, whether near or far, require time and attention. While some relationships and some people demand more attention than others to maintain a relationship, you will find that your true friends are not those who become bitter or angry and hold grudges at you leaving for long periods of time. Your true friends are the ones who can pick up right where you left off regardless of how long you’ve been apart or where you’ve been. I’m so thankful for these people. They help me to realize as an expat that there are times when I’m lonely but I’m never truly alone.

If you think of a friend, just let them know, in that moment. In doesn’t matter if the time zone is different and they don’t see it until the next morning. At least then they will wake up to a message from a friend rather than nothing. This simple gesture can literally make a world of difference.

Sometimes, simple notes can be all that’s needed to maintain a true friend for years. For others, much more is required. There is no magic formula. But it always requires the ingredient of intentionality.

Overcoming distance is a test of a relationship, just like the daily decision to love someone you’ve promised to love even when they act in a way that isn’t likable. Expats aren’t always likable but they will love you like no one else can love you if you let them.

Returning “Home” Again

Expats are excellent escape artists. That makes loving an expat a constant decision. So when they escape your mind, or your home, let them. When they can’t define home anymore, it doesn’t mean that you are not home to them, wherever you are.

When they leave, it doesn’t mean that they are gone forever or that they don’t love you. Sure, they will miss some events that seem important to you and some that are important to you. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. In fact, the opposite is true. There is likely no one in the world that wishes they could be in two places at the same time more often than an expat.

Most care so deeply that they are willing to change their life for the pursuit of something better – for them, for you. Hopefully, it ends up being for both. Their pursuit is their attempt.

When the Boeing 777 cabin door closes, there are more than five things that no one tells you about moving abroad or being an expatriate. There are many more than five things that those left behind could tell as well.

Expats trade a physical single home for the idea of home anywhere and everywhere. Coming home is neither a coming nor a going for an expat. Instead, it’s just part of the process of a life in between.

Wheels up, remember to tread gently, love deeply, and keep picking up the pieces. Though at times we cut, we’re all just broken pieces trying to shine more light in the world.

After all, this world is not our home.

About the author:

Dustin J. Knutson holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University (VA) and lives and works with his wife and two daughters as an expatriate in the Middle East.

Note: If you enjoyed this you may be interested in reading some of my previous blog posts on global leadership; The Problem with the Wrong Side of the RoadGender EqualityAssertivenessFuture Orientation, Power DistancePerformance Orientation, Humane Orientation and Individualism.


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a global-leader-in-process, a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

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Organizational Culture: Making the Invisible Visible

“Culture eats strategy for lunch”. Peter Drucker

Those who rub shoulders with me regularly have likely heard me quote this more than once. It’s a cornerstone concept in my organizational development work. Patrick Lencioni reframed this same idea when he stated that he would rather lead a unified team with an average strategy than a fractious team with an excellent strategy.

Most organizational leaders understand the importance of having a unified culture. However, I find there is much less clarity in how to facilitate understanding and practice of this culture. This process, something I call cultural transference, is how we help people understand and practice the norms of our organizational culture.

As I observe organizations, I find two the following two strategies dominate how we facilitate cultural tranference:

  1. The Virus Strategy: This implicit strategy is built on the idea of ‘watch me and do as I do’. This approach assumes that culture is strong enough to catch. Somewhat like the cold virus, given enough time, it will spread (and most everyone will catch it).
  2. The Immunization Strategy: This explicit strategy is built by defining culture and then intentionally communicating it. This culture is written down and prescribed to every employee – often with several booster shots.

I have seen the virus strategy work but believe it is risky. While culture can be caught, our environments are equally receptive to hosting different cultural strains. There is low certainty that the right virus will spread to all corners of your organization.

The immunization strategy is much more effective but it also takes more work. When culture is taught (and not caught), we have a higher chance of infusing the right strain into our organizational DNA. It does not guarantee cultural transference, but it creates clarity and provides a litmus test by which we can assess when people are not a cultural fit.

Culture provides us with a sense of organizational identity and generates a shared commitment to beliefs and values that are larger than themselves (Richard Daft). If this is true, culture is not a one-size-fits-all product. Different cultures have different purposes and achieve different outcomes. The goal is to develop a culture that fits your mission and strategic goals. Will you choose to accomplish this through a virus or an immunization strategy? Which of these two strategies do you most regularly encounter?

If you need to develop an organizational cultural immunization strategy please contact me.

Head ShotJeff Suderman is a cultural virologist, a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Richard Daft (2013). Organization theory and design.

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