Informal structures

24 July 2018

A very interesting discussion of structure-less organizations ( here ). Some software companies (noteable examples - valve and facebook - to some extent) try to break with the traditional forms of hierarchical organization structures and try to go with a more flat/self-organizing system. However this is quite tricky: the problem is that in the absence of formal hierarchies there will be informal ones.

The politics of weakly structured/structure-less organizations can be quite complex, Jo Freemain examines the experience of the feminist movement to this respect and explains the difficulties here

the main points

  • people are social beings, therefore they are bound to organize, this implies some form of hierarchy, even if it remains informal.
  • if you have informal hierarchies then they have an interest to act ‘behind the scenes’ (so as to remain unaccountable!)
  • very astute observation on how to spot hidden networks of influence.
  • maintaining the informal links that make a weakly structured system go create a lot of overhead and lead to inefficiencies.
  • explains the rational of green movements org. structure (proposes measures that are designed to address the shortcomings, how to bring in structure without too much structure)

(my notes on reading this text are given at the end).

Every type of organization can be managed either skillfully - that’s when the org. is succeeding at problem solving and generally growing, or it will have less capable manager that are not up the task. I think that creating an organization that works well (any form of organization) is really a form of art - there seems to be some secret sauce not described in any books that makes it all tick. (for example even a dysfunctional system like this one somehow works for Valve, they seem to be doing fine from the business side of things)

The form or organization that is prevalent at any given moment: Probably the more practical system is selected as the prevalent model of organization - in any event there is some form of evolution that weeds out the losers. There is a lot to be gained by going with the prevalent system of organization- you can select for proven managerial talent for example;

however some experiments can succeed - you might be more likely to attract exceptional talent who might want to go for the lure of the untried, organisations like valve or facebook probably try to attract such people and try to put them into commanding positions - or rather hope that they will get a lot of informal power within the organization (don’t know if it worked out - never worked for them); however my guess as an outsider is that this system has its problems when it comes to growth and scaling.

The article by Jo Freeman recommends some measures that are supposed to avoid the shortcomings of structurelessness - however I think that these are measures designed to prevent an accumulation of power and information so that leaders remain interchangeable (like rotation); this does work against building individual competence. These are hard to maintain as a movement/organization gets bigger - for example the green party in Germany abandoned rotation and direct democracy at some stage.

From the position of an individual: given all this information, I think the crucial questions that one should try to figure out as an applicant when applying for a job at any kind of organization are as follows:

  • how is work evaluated? Are there periodic evaluations of the results?
  • who is performing the evaluation?
  • how are conflicts resolved?
  • who is owning the code for a component? Who has the right to modify a given unit / component?
  • Processes: in what manner is there a planning of milestones? With what resolutions? Who is doing the planning?
  • to what extent are there informal groups that are governing the show? (ouch - you probably will not ask such a question at an interview, however there are means of checking that, for example if you have a series of interviews at any given company you can look up if there is a common background from the CVs of your interviewer - nowadays almost everyone is on linked-in)
  • processes oriented vs. goal oriented; don’t get me wrong - processes are very important, but the question is what counts in the end of the day? Can processes be adapted to fit a task, what amount of flexibility is there in the system? One way would be to figure out how the organization handled problems in the past - but I really would not know how to ask such questions in an interview.

Of course who is going to hire you when you ask all these questions at an interview … (nervous giggle). Now go figure…


by Jo Freeman aka Joreen

  • structureless : the main form of organization in women movement.
  • was quite good in early stages: when the main goal of the movement was ‘raising awareness’ (it encouraged participation and discussion, resulted in ‘supportive atmosphere’)
  • problems start when groups went to do something specific: says the inherent limits of this form of organization showed up.

  • says some form of (informal) structure always shows up in any group of people that meet over time “it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group” - this because people are different “we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable” (likens it to futile pursuit of ideals like “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy.
  • “Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful”
  • structureless as a form of deception: “As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.” - says elites form out of the informal structure of structureless groups!

  • “an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent”
  • elitist advocate the rule of an elite
  • “The most insidious elites are usually run by people not known to the larger public at all. Intelligent elitists are usually smart enough not to allow themselves to become well known; when they become known, they are watched, and the mask over their power is no longer firmly lodged.”
  • “Elites are nothing more, and nothing less, than groups of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activity” “These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group.”
  • such a group may well form the elite of an otherwise unstructured group (similar to ‘old school’/’locker room’ mentality among other groups)
  • says if a group has two circles of competing friends this is “the healthiest situation, as the other members are in a position to arbitrate between the two competitors for power and thus to make demands on those to whom they give their temporary allegiance”
  • “At any small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who is influencing whom. The members of a friendship group will relate more to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively, and interrupt less; they repeat each other’s points and give in amiably; they tend to ignore or grapple with the “outs” whose approval is not necessary for making a decision.” … “Once one knows with whom it is important to check before a decision is made, and whose approval is the stamp of acceptance, one knows who is running things”

Examines the history of women movement

  • in early days of women’s movement married women were of higher standing (especially those married to new left man - they had command of resources that were important “and women were used to getting what they needed through men rather than independently”)
  • later they had a multitude of other different criteria for being in one of the elites (long list) “The characteristics prerequisite for participating in the informal elites of the movement, and thus for exercising power, concern one’s background, personality, or allocation of time. They do not include one’s competence, dedication to feminism, talents, or potential contribution to the movement” - the background is determining your circle of friends! (the important thing here)
  • how to get ‘in’ : “The only main difference depends on whether one is in a group from the beginning, or joins it after it has begun. If involved from the beginning it is important to have as many of one’s personal friends as possible also join. If no one knows anyone else very well, then one must deliberately form friendships with a select number and establish the informal interaction patterns crucial to the creation of an informal structure. Once the informal patterns are formed they act to maintain themselves, and one of the most successful tactics of maintenance is to continuously recruit new people who “fit in.””
  • all this needs a lot of time; so says that formal structures are easier to join !

  • with ‘structureless’ groups all the power is with these informal in-groups who also lack accountability (because they claim not to exist at all) “informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group. This does not necessarily make informal structures irresponsible. Those who are concerned with maintaining their influence will usually try to be responsible. The group simply cannot compel such responsibility; it is dependent on the interests of the elite.”

  • women’s right movement does not elect/select speakers because of ‘structureless’ position: therefore ‘stars’ are called upon by the media to explain their position (still these ‘stars’ were never elected and are resented by the movement)
  • problems: ‘stars’ were not elected by the group and can’t be removed by the group!

  • Does it work? Most often not - but sometimes “the developed informal structure of the group coincides with an available need that the group can fill in such a way as to give the appearance that an Unstructured group “works.”“Still she identifies situation where it does ‘work’

    • the task determines what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. It provides a guide by which people can judge their actions and make plans for future activity. (the task is structuring the group)
    • group is homogeneous (is necessary to insure that participants have a “common language” for interaction) (diversity does not aid communication/understanding/common interpretation)
    • group must be small “Information must be passed on to everyone, opinions checked, work divided up, and participation assured in the relevant decisions. This is only possible if the group is small and people practically live together for the most crucial phases of the task. Needless to say, the number of interactions necessary to involve everybody increases geometrically with the number of participants. This inevitably limits group participants to about five, or excludes some from some of the decisions. Successful groups can be as large as 10 or 15, but only when they are in fact composed of several smaller subgroups which perform specific parts of the task, and whose members overlap with each other so that knowledge of what the different subgroups are doing can be passed around easily.”
    • low level of skill specialization - so that people become interchangeable (no one may be indispensable (why?)
  • conflicts between multiple informal groups remain hidden (because the group do not want to go public - and are unable to acknowledge their own existence; the ideal is after all structurelessness)

  • principles for ‘doing it right’ (all copied from the text “

    • Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot so easily be ignored.
    • Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them. This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised.
    • Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn different skills.
    • Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s “property” and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.
    • Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group or giving them hard work because they are disliked serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of “apprenticeship” program rather than the “sink or swim” method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralizing. Conversely, being blacklisted from doing what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history; the movement does not need to repeat this process.
    • Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion – without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more politically effective one can be.
    • Equal access to resources needed by the group. This is not always perfectly possible, but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press owned by a husband, or a darkroom) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills can be equitably available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.” “