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Systems of Agreements, Part 1

As I noted before, my favorite description for the underlying nature of organizations is “a system of agreements.”  But before we can really talk about systems, we need to talk a little more about what we mean by “agreements.”

When I just googled the definition of the word “agreement,” the following was returned:

  1. Harmony or accordance in opinion or feeling.
  2. A negotiated and typically legally binding arrangement between parties as to a course of action.

This was exactly what I was hoping for.  Two distinct meanings, both of which are essential to the success of human systems.

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Self-”Organization” – A Primer

The word “organization” carries with it so much baggage,  I find it useful to have a precise working definition.  It’s hard to get “out-of-the-box” if we don’t understand how big the box we’re in actually is.

I normally define organization something like:

A system of agreements, either implicit or explicit, which guides and coordinates actions among people, makes decisions binding on a group, defines common beliefs, and/or determines access to or disposition of resources created by or available to a group.  Agreements usually cover such issues as authority to take or direct action, management of common resources, manner and consequences of making and enforcing agreements, among others.

This definition is intentionally broad — encompassing everything from culture as a whole to the family unit and friendships.  For many purposes, such a definition is too broad and brings in too many unnecessary complications.  However, if having an impact on social change is part of the intention, I haven’t found anything narrower to be sufficient.

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Mitochondrial vs Viral Strategies

imgur.com/3DF1M

imgur.com/3DF1M

Chilled Out ‘Lazy Cat’ Goes Viral” read a recent Huffington Post headline.

This use of the term “viral” is now commonplace, i.e., something that suddenly becomes very popular and  circulates quickly from person to person, especially across the Internet.  Viral marketing, viral videos, viral political messages,  viral cute cat pictures…  They all share the common metaphor of a virus: first catch the virus, then spread the virus.

It is ironic that businesses and others have embraced this concept so completely, since it brings to mind some the worst stereotypes of business practices:

A virus takes over a host cell’s creative capacity and uses it to make copies of itself and perpetuate itself, usually at the expense of the host. Do big chain stores entering small towns spring to mind?  Or the fact that you can’t go anywhere in the world without seeing a McDonald’s?

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Principled organizations

GandhiWhen we say that a person is “principled,” we generally mean that they live their life based on a strong underlying ethic — a set of beliefs about proper behavior toward other people, and a commitment to stick to those beliefs even when tempted to act otherwise.

But what does it mean to say that an organization is principled?

I’d like to suggest that four things probably need to be true:

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What is distributed enterprise?

When most folks talk about “distributed” systems, they normally have computers or the Internet in mind.  Or maybe they have been exposed to “complex adaptive systems” theory or “chaos theory” and are thinking of natural ecosystems, quantum mechanics or some other arcane discipline.  There’s an enormous amount to learn from those kinds of systems, but…

I’m not talking about any of that.  Or, well, not entirely…

I’m talking about when people are trying to achieve an important goal together, and where each person and group of people insist on maintaining their own rights – and are willing to honor each other’s rights — to protect their autonomy, their liberty and anything else that is deeply important to them.  And even beyond that, they are willing to enter in concrete and binding agreements to work together in a way that meet these criteria.

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