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.


 

Head Shot

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

Sources

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.

 

 

Are you Do–>Think or Think–>Do?

The ability to understand the unique ways people think, act and learn allows us to be more effective in our work and personal lives. As I consult, one of my favorite filters to help me do this is determining whether people demonstrate a preference for thoughtfulness or for action. I have dubbed this the ‘do–>think or think –>do’ test.
This concept was developed while listening to a presentation by Robert Moran (Brunswick Group or @robertpmoran). As he discussed an organizations strategy, he used think/do or do/think to define the two strategic options of the company. I have borrowed and extended this principle as it also applies to human and organizational behavior.
Think of some of the people that you interact with regularly (including yourself!) and ask yourself which one of these two categories fits best:
1. Do–>Think: These people are action oriented and like to get their hands dirty. They get to it and are comfortable working with an imperfect plan. Once things are underway or completed, they assess what they have learned and how to improve it.
Example: As I taught a board game game to a group of people this weekend, Ryan interrupted me two minutes into the rules and asked, “can we just begin playing and learn it as we go?” He demonstrated a strong do–>think tendency.
2. Think –>Do: These people prefer to begin by thoughtfully considering what needs to be done. They consider options, line up their priorities and then systematically work their way through them. They are not afraid of action, they just want to spend time on the best ones.
Example: I am teaching some on-line Master’s level courses this fall. The think–>do students in my class are sending me emails in the first week asking for clarification on paper requirements (and also sending in a draft for review prior to submitting the final paper).
We fluctuate between both of these modes of operation each day. Certain circumstances lend themselves more naturally to each of these styles. For example, contrast the difference between the development of a five-year strategic plan versus assembling your child’s new toy. Or perhaps at the height of your busy work season you may not have time to think/do. Sometimes circumstances will dictate our preferred method.
However, I believe that each of us also has an innate bias. I need to tackle large problems with time to think and ponder. In contrast, some industries move so quickly that they often need to be more do/think (think of technology and apps). This filter has helped me understand that I need to shift my preferred style at times in order to work more effectively with the do–>think people or to get work done on a tight timeline.
Here are some ways to apply this principle:
  • Assess the members of your team and identify their tendency.
  • Discuss this model with them and ask them to identify their own tendency? Is it the same as your observation?
  • Identify the person you often conflict with at work. Could your conflict stem from a different do–>think or think–>do orientation?
  • Review whether you identify the style which is different than your own as ‘wrong’ or ‘different’?
  • Determine how having different styles will help you and your team.

There is no single filter that helps you understand a person perfectly. However, the do–>think or think–>do is one tool which is easy to use and often provides you with quick insights about how to best work with a person.


 

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