#31: Alternative sociality

Uncertain times and amorphous organizations.

Greetings to readers old and new. This is yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing. The first issue explains the project; you can see all the issues here.

Existential threat paralyzes—but can also galvanize.

An unsurprising consequence of coronavirus lockdown is that people are trying things out which they would never even have considered under normal circumstance—myself included.

As an introvert, I’m fundamentally disinclined to work with others. As an ethnographer, my mode is to always be the bumbling stranger/outsider. As a theory-maker, I take stubborn pride in holding unpopular viewpoints which nobody wants to espouse. By temperament, method, and supposed profession, I dislike and avoid collaboration. Unhealthy and immature, but there it is.

Uncertain and unsettled times are painful because they invalidate comfortable, tested ways of doing things. But there is potential upside. In sweeping away existing ways of doing things, uncertainty opens up space for new ways of doing things.

tl;dr: in corona-time, apparently all bets are off.

So in the last few weeks I found myself in the unusual position of working with Dave McDougall (whom I’ve never met in person) to develop and run a collaborative project in/for/with/on the Yak Collective, which I mentioned in passing last week.

This is a loose—very, very loose—association of individuals instigated by Venkatesh Rao and run primarily on a Discord server. Characterizing yaks as “freelancers” probably overstates their homogeneity. Calling them “members” would overstate the extent to which there is clarity and stability of participation. About the best you can do is to say that most yaks are trying to make a living by developing unconventional ideas and selling them in some form.

YC is a community of people, but it is also trying to be a type of business organization: a startup with a new way of monetizing the economy of ideas as a collective of idea-entrepreneurs.

This business model is still emerging and hasn’t been tested. It isn’t clear what the business model is, if it works, or if anyone wants to buy its output. YC’s legitimacy as a business is an open question because it has no pre-existing conceptual history in the space. In fact, it may not even register to observers as a business because it barely looks like one: there’s a website but no office, no CEO, no board of directors, no employees, no traditional assets; it isn’t on the books of any national business registry.

My involvement in YC was originally as a lurker curious about the organizational form. For reasons I can’t articulate fully—but are probably connected to profound feelings of existential threat from uncertainty in the environment—I decided to go deeper. In research parlance, I went from observer to participant-observer.

In that process many questions about this form of organization (one not yet described in theories of the firm) have become apparent.

YC is probably an instance of a type of organization I proposed in a paper vomited on by nearly everyone I showed it to: the amorphous organization. (The original paper is here—it was the basis of my later work on negotiated joining and is very half-baked.)

The key feature of amorphous organizations is that membership is continuous, not binary: an individual is not in or out of the organization (as in A below); instead s/he is closer to or further from the organization’s core (as in B below).

This diagram from that decade-old paper crudely illustrates:

Organizations that exist as diffuse clouds (vs clearly bounded entities) have many potentially kooky properties—but one that seems especially relevant now is that they both permit and can enfold a much larger range of types of participants and modes of participation.

This is a logical property of amorphous organizations that arises from the diffuseness/unclarity of their boundaries:

The less clearly defined an organization → the less clearly defined the criteria for belonging to the organization → the more diverse the participants can be and the more diverse their ways of participating in the organization.

Relative to conventional organizations with clearly defined boundaries and memberships, amorphous organizations are

  1. More inclusive. If there are fewer barriers to entry, more people can participate (all else equal). [Note: This was previously “More democratic participation,” but it was pointed out to me that this inadvertently alluded to decision-making power).]

  2. More diversity, and more dimensions of diversity. Diversity is often considered in terms of a small number of dimensions, such as gender, race, sexual orientation, educational background, and such. A more democratic organization imposes fewer and weaker filters on entry, so more dimensions of difference will be represented among its participants (all else equal). Many of these dimensions of difference will be latent and initially unobservable. (More here about multilevel, multidimensional diversity.)

  3. More variable participant quality. This is a corollary of having fewer and weaker entry filters for the organizations.

  4. More uncertainty about participant commitment. This is a corollary of participation as a continuous (not binary) phenomenon. Participants close to the organization’s core (perhaps those working on multiple projects with each other) are more clearly committed—but those who lurk further from the core (possibly not working actively on any projects) have more uncertain commitment.

Taking this reasoning further, amorphous organizations are (again relative to conventional, clearly bounded organizations):

  1. More likely to be able to adapt when the business environment changes unpredictably. This is a corollary of being more multidimensionally diverse. If the sudden change in the business environment creates a need for someone with experience as a video producer (say, to remotely coach people in how to teach remotely), it is more likely that an internally diverse organization will already have someone like that.

  2. Less likely to be able to produce necessarily interdependent work across the entire organization. This is a corollary of uncertainty about participant commitment and quality. People doing interdependent work rely on and are relied on by their co-workers—and they need to be able to plan for such mutual reliance. This planning is difficult when the level of commitment is uncertain and the quality of participants is variable. It will be much easier for amorphous organizations to coordinate lots of diverse independent work instead.

  3. Less likely to be able to scale significantly and retain uniform participation. The amorphous organization is naturally less legible and comprehensible—its features are less clear at any moment in time and they are more prone to morph over time. Internal knowledge of the organization (its resources and how it works) is more likely to stay tacit and be held in participants’ heads instead of being made explicit in externalized forms like organizational charts, clearly defined employee roles, manuals of standard operating procedures, and electronic knowledge bases. As the amorphous organization adds participants, the amount of tacit organizational information participants have to hold grows not linearly but geometrically, soon exceeding capacity.

My take: amorphous organizations that survive long-term are likely to have a small, tight, highly committed, high-quality core of less-diverse participants surrounded by a large, diffuse cloud of uncertain-commitment, uncertain-quality, more-diverse participants.

One misconception about management research is that it somehow comes up with new ideas about how business is done. In fact, what it does is nearly inevitably retrospective.

Management researchers look at what businesses and other organizations are already doing (a way of doing business, or organizing people, or selling stuff) and label it—“novelty” is finding something which hasn’t been labeled yet. Management research becomes problematic when, through lack of imagination, it focuses on well-labeled areas and ignores new, unlabeled areas.

When management research only focuses on traditional-looking types of businesses and industries it overlooks—quite literally researchers cannot see—businesses that have a different shape. Amorphous organizations have been overlooked in this way for a long time, but they potentially have much to offer to conventional organizations even if they appear freakish.

(Incidentally, there is lots of research on social movements and communities of practice, but neither research stream focuses on the core feature of amorphous organization—explicitly continuous, nonbinary participation—and its implications for action and interaction. Amorphous organizations are neither social movements nor CoPs, but social movements and CoPs are probably types of amorphous organization.)

The implications and dynamics of amorphous organizations outlined above are already visible in YC.

Under uncertainty, where the demands on an organization are unpredictable, having a wider range of types of members and ways they can participate is adaptive. This is probably good.

Of the 400 or so YC participants, some are great for the situation right now (very adapted, “high quality”) and others that seem not so good right now (maladapted, “low quality”). The natural tendency is to filter for high quality, for the cream to work only with the cream—this tendency exists both at the organizational and at the individual level. Especially the latter: no high-quality participant wants to be diluted by low-quality participants.

Conventional organizations tend toward being highly adapted and homogeneous because they self-select and pursue adaptedness. As I’ve written before, “preparing for uncertainty looks hare-brained, wasteful, and inefficient” (#8), and “people who insist on maximizing profitability during stable times usually succeed in slowly grinding adaptability out of a business because it looks like inefficiency” (#23). YC already experiences these pressures. This is probably bad.

It’s bad because, for now, we can realistically expect the future to be a succession of new normals (#25). Each new normal won’t be fully predictable, and will last for an unpredictable duration. In this unpredictably changeable environment, participants who are maladapted for the current environmental state may be adapted to a future (but currently unknown) environmental state—in other words, they may be low quality now but high quality later. YC may become highly adapted but maladapted later if it filters for only high-quality participants now.

The issues emerging with YC bring up broader questions about how we think about uncertainty and efficiency. As an organization in uncertainty, the question for YC is whether it can, by design, preserve reservoirs for adaptation when these reservoirs always look maladapted and low-quality. A different, blunter, more general way to frame the question is, “How can an organization design itself to accept persistent inefficiency so that it preserves its capacity for response and adaptation to uncertainty?”

Really, this is a question that organizations everywhere—including, for instance, national governments which chose to defund expensive and apparently pointless emergency preparedness programs—could be asking themselves.

YC and other amorphous organizations are settings in which this urgent question (and potential answers in the form of concrete processes or ways of working) may be more clearly visible. And these answers may apply to conventional organizations.

In other words, amorphous organizations be able to teach conventional organizations how to become and remain adaptable to uncertainty.

Prelapsarian fantasies.


Find me on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, on Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.