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Future Imperfect

Page history last edited by Mark 9 years, 7 months ago

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Future Imperfect: Inter Pares, and the Natures of Organization

 

Inter Pares: Defining the UCaPP Organization

 

I also caution about seeing this as the ideal, amazing environment where we’ve learned how to do all these things that nobody has ever taught anybody in our society, right? (Jean-1-97).

 

Jean’s caution notwithstanding, Inter Pares has learned to do many organizational things that have so far eluded the vast majority of contemporary organizations. Although there has been considerable discourse concerning more “democratic” forms of participatory management, and a wealth of admonitions for organizations to be more collaborative, Inter Pares has not only effected and sustained such changes, it is also quite explicit in its understanding of, and reflections on, these changes.

 

It was not always so: As Inter Pares grew from a start-up-sized organization of a handful of people, doubling its staff within a relatively short period during the early 1980s, it realized that the relatively conventional management structure it initially installed was not “true to its values of equality and parity, namely, where there would be parity in power and shared/equal responsibility and accountability” (Seydegart & Turcot, 2004, p. 3). Not dissimilar to the realizations that are driving organizational transformation at Unit 7, Sam relates the circumstances that provided similar impetus at Inter Pares:

 

I’d say it’s only been since the mid-eighties that we identified as a feminist organization, where feminism became explicitly included and foregrounded within our political analysis, and our political identity. And that was initiated by the arrival of a new executive director who was a very strong feminist, and who … identified the disparity that she saw between the collaborative egalitarian model of work that was promoted for external relations, but that was not being followed internally, because there was a hierarchy within the organization. And that was an inconsistency that she felt was an important one. (Sam-1-97)

 

Sam describes how the gap between espoused and in-use theories, and incorporating what Argyris and Schön (1974, 1978) describe as double-loop learning, effected a fundamental change in organizational culture and practice. In what seems to be characteristic of a UCaPP organization, individual, personal values come together at Inter Pares to create a collaboratively constructed set of organizational values that inform every aspect of its operations and programming. Just as Loreen observes that any dysfunctional disparity between internal and external practice can be easily detected by Unit 7’s clients (Loreen-1-21), Inter Pares understands the importance of “walking the talk,” as Seydegart and Turcot describe:

 

For one, it gives Inter Pares added credibility and speaks to their integrity because they actually have actively pursued, in the very way they have structured and manage the organization, their vision of a more just and equitable world and their basic principles of equity and accountability. (Seydegart & Turcot, 2004, p. 31)

 

Inter Pares is founded fundamentally on the values held by the individual members—those beliefs that are to be promoted, preserved and protected. Sam describes the particularly Canadian[1] aspect to the universality of Inter Pares’s values:

 

Our values of social justice and universal equality are found internationally. What makes us Canadian is recognizing that we hold a particular place in the world, which is often a place of privilege, and how we best use that so as to work against the systems that generate that privilege. (Sam-1-3)

 

Adhering to these values provides guidance to the organization's operational and program choices; they are reinforced throughout Inter Pares’s management processes and preserved in its approaches to every aspect of its operation, from hiring through to its coalition and partnership engagements worldwide.

 

A Recipe for Emergent Organization

 

Jean describes the recipe for Inter Pares’s success, and the high regard in which it is held among its partners:

 

Our methodology is building long-term relationships. … We find people in various ways with whom we feel we can form a common cause around some various social justice issues, and they’ll be issues arise depending on the context within which we’re working in these places. And follow the relationships. So follow the place in the centre where both we feel that we can engage and we can contribute, and the people with whom we are building the relationship also feel that they can participate in this relationship, and they'll get something out of it, and it will be useful in the context in which they’re working. (Jean-1-3)

 

There are some particularly interesting, if not instructive, aspects of Jean’s description that may be applicable to organizations other than those involved in social justice endeavours. The first ingredient is to find people that share a commonality of cause around an issue or area of interest. This framing is clearly appropriate to a social justice context; it may be less clear – but no less pertinent – in any other organizational context. The common cause may, for example, revolve around an approach to a particular business or industry. Common cause goes beyond a specific instrumental purpose or objective which may yet to be determined. More likely, it reflects the intrinsic values of the invited participants and creates a commonality of motive force – impetus – within the context or environment.

 

Second, Jean suggests to “follow the relationship” or the “place in the centre where we both feel that we can engage and … contribute.” Her selection of phrasing is particularly interesting in a way that will become apparent in a later chapter. For now, suffice it to say that the engagement or relationship connection is, ideally, balanced so that each member of the emerging organization participates in such a way that they receive “something … useful in the context in which they’re working.” It is important to note that the “something useful” does not necessarily have to do with specific, named, preconceived objectives or goals; rather the focus is on what may be meaningful to the individual in the context.

 

But not every arbitrary group of people who happen to meet in common cause will form into even a loose coalition; nor will these initial relationships necessarily be able to sustain themselves and emerge into viable organizations. Jean describes what she refers to as the requisite “critical mass” necessary to creating an emergent organization, the diversity of voices and perspectives needed for appropriate perception, and the importance of developing a “social contract” that will enable the coalition to sustain:

 

We like to work in coalition, because, in fact we think the best way of getting things done is to be able to have a lot of people, building critical mass, having a lot of people working on the same thing … going approximately in the same direction, but also, bringing many, many different perspectives. Many heads are better than one when you’re looking at this sort of thing. And actually, many kinds of voices, many ways of expressing things. Divergent views at times are all things that are important to have when you’re trying to achieve objectives around many of the things we work on.

 

So there’s the critical mass in the large sense that we want to always engage in coalition building, or network building, or even little pockets of things. But also within coalitions, when the social contract begins to break down because there’s turnover in this organization, or that organization has no idea of what’s going on, what the history was, they’re not really interested in that. Social contract begins to break down. You have to start saying, is this something we actually want to continue to be part of? Is this a useful thing for us to be doing? One of the ways that we would determine that is, is there a critical mass within this network or coalition of people with whom we can work to make sure that things can happen, that energy is emerging out of it, and it’s not just sucking energy. And when I say critical mass, there has to be three like-minded parties—us, and at least two others who are willing to at least ask the same questions, even if we’re not coming up with the same answers. (Jean-1-13; emphasis added)

 

In summation, an emergent organization will coalesce from a place of common cause when: (a) there are many people among multiple organizations with a common sense of purpose and volition to action; that (b) bring many perspectives and approaches while the entire emerging organization is “going in approximately the same direction”; while (c) assimilating many voices which are expressing ideas and approaches in diverse ways; so that (d) energy is being created and projected rather than merely being consumed.

 

In the processes of creating an emergent organization, divergent views are important, but always in the context of maintaining the social contract of the organization, that is, its embodied and enacted collective values contributed by each of the participant members. Jean notes that changing some of the participants may result in the social contract breaking down as the nature of the interactions change. If the resultant organization falls below a “critical mass” it will collapse. For Inter Pares, critical mass for an extra-organizational coalition is considered to be at least three participant member organizations – including itself – that are “like minded,” that is, “willing to at least ask the same questions, even if we’re not coming up with the same answers” (Jean-1-13).

 

Like Unit 7, Inter Pares values diversity of opinion, multiple views and visions, and heterogeneous thinking, ideas, and approaches. Notably, this is in stark contrast to the BAH organization participants who variously insist on “speak[ing] with one voice” (Sean-1-29), or having members commit and not look back (Matt-1-25). It is not necessarily an alignment of objectives or goals that creates a successful coalition or emergent organization, or even agreement among the constituent members. Commonality of direction need be only “approximate”; more important is commonality of values, principles, cause, and, notably, questions.

 

Managing Consensus

 

One of Inter Pares’s key structural differences compared to other organizations is to decouple general management activities from being a distinct area of subject-matter expertise. Thus, having individual areas of managerial oversight – with nominal titles like Communications Director – is not mutually exclusive with a collaborative, co-management structure. Rather, in decoupling management functions from being distinct and separate operational responsibilities, each member of Inter Pares plays (at least) a dual role. An individual’s functional, or program, responsibility persists based on their “technical” knowledge, expertise, and qualifications; their management responsibilities, like being a member of the Coordinating Group (COG) or a reference group for co-worker evaluation, rotate among all members in Inter Pares’s co-management structure. None of the management responsibilities connote a special status or class-defining hierarchy as in a BAH organization. Sam describes the structure as follows:

 

Inter Pares is a consensus-based organization. We’re non-hierarchical, and we have a co-management structure in which all full-time staff are co-managers of the organization, with equal responsibility and equal salary. … We have two main decision-making bodies, or instances in the organization. One is our monthly staff meeting, and the other is our monthly program meeting, and those are all-staff meetings. The staff meeting addresses institutional issues, and the program meeting addresses program-related issues related to our work outside of the institution as well as inside. And, there are about eight different committees as well that carry out our management functions. (Sam-1-21)

 

Operationally, the staff are organized into both geographic and thematic “clusters”:

 

There’s a geographic cluster for Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And there’s also a fundraising cluster. And we also now have thematic clusters that [include] people from across the organization who are interested in particular issues, and pursuing that cross-geographically. And so there’s migration, violence against women, and food sovereignty cluster. Oh, as well as a militarized commerce[2] cluster. (Sam-1-27)

 

The major management venue and coordinating structure is the all-staff meetings, notable for the fact that “it’s not merely decisions that are taken at those meetings. It’s also an important forum for socializing information” (Sam-1-27; emphasis added). How widely any particular bit of information is “socialized” is left to the judgement of the individual:

 

If it’s a relatively light matter, then you might just consult with a few people who are around you, or people who might have a particular expertise on some issues, or you might discuss it within your cluster. Or, if you think that it’s something, due to timing, or the fact that it might be controversial, or just due to the fact that everybody might want to know about it, then you would bring it either to the program or the staff meeting. (Sam-1-27)

 

The basis for exercising that judgement is not merely utilitarian or instrumental; nor are the criteria exclusively serving any external objective or goal. Rather, it is a judgement that incorporates the type of holistic knowing and contextual assessment that seems to be characteristic of a more-UCaPP organization.

 

The Co-ordinating Group serves the function of traditional middle-to-senior management:

 

COG. That’s our nickname for our Coordinating Group, which is a committee that serves to keep an overall eye on things, and just to ensure that there aren’t any things that are falling between the cracks. They keep track of workload and mental health issues, … and generally keep their eye on the overall picture in terms of staffing and how things are going in that sense. So, of course, it’s everybody’s responsibility, but [COG is] a specific place for things to be discussed if, for instance, in the annual self-evaluations, that there are some worrying tendencies that were raised, the COG would discuss it to see if they would like to propose something. (Sam-1-23)

 

These managerial functions, such as human resources[3] and general operations, are still required in this “non-hierarchical, cooperative, co-management” (Sam-1-21) model. Unlike a more traditional organization, they are performed collaboratively, with specific responsibilities not being vested in any one person. Similarly, Finance, Staff Operations, and Program Operations – the latter two being all-staff committees that meet monthly – confer collective responsibility among all members.

 

Inter Pares breaks from the fundamental premise of BAH organizations that draws from scientific management and administrative management theory: management functions are distinct areas of subject-matter expertise apart from the specific subject-content of the enterprise. A UCaPP organization like Inter Pares strives to create particular effects that are consistent with its values, sense of cause, and social contract among its various constituencies as its primary focus. The dual role for each participating individual is important for ensuring that subject matter-related activities and management activities are both contributing to bringing about the desired effects.

 

In most organizations, if there is a natural, intrinsic consensus among the members on a particular issue, or if the matter is of relatively low consequence, a decision is generally taken quickly—often retrospectively framed as being an example of a supposedly participatory or democratic process. The interesting distinctions become evident when an organization that espouses participatory decision-making confronts diverse opinions:

 

If there’s more divergence of opinion than ordinary, then we might take longer and talk about it. And, try to get a sense of where people are coming from and to talk it through, until people felt like they could all agree and come to a decision. And sometimes, there are a few people who may still feel, by the end of the meeting, that they’re not necessarily in accord. And so then, usually we would touch base with the particular people who had been voicing a minority opinion, and say, how do you feel about this, and are you okay with that. Sometimes, subsequently, we say we think consensus was rushed a bit, and we might revisit the topic. But usually, there’s often a process of “trusting to the wisdom of the group.” If I’m the only one who thinks that, and fourteen other people that I respect a lot think differently, well, I’m going to say that, in this case, I’ll go along with it and stand behind this decision. But sometimes, you might think, you know, no, I’m really right about this and I’d like to continue the conversation. … And sometimes conversations just recur naturally on their own, whether because the topic comes up in a different form, or new colleagues arrive and the conversation just resurges naturally. So there are, over the length of one’s tenure, the opportunity to talk about things more than once naturally on their own. (Sam-1-27)

 

The espoused processes are similar to those employed by Unit 7 and Organization F; the in-use processes appear to differ slightly, but in those differences are characteristic distinctions that reveal the locations of the respective organizations. With primary-purposeful organizations, their objective-driven intent to “move forward” seems to place a high value on making the decision, irrespective of whether the decision made is necessarily correct, effective, or appropriately understood in its complete context. There may be an emphasis on “convincing” dissenters as Aaron and Matt both report in Organization F, and “not looking back” on a decision once made. There may, as well, be an incentive to convey a sense of unanimity, expressed as “speaking with one voice” as in Organization M. Reflecting on the felt need for unanimity, it is almost ironic – but certainly telling – that the two most consensus-oriented organizations among my participants, Unit 7 and Inter Pares, explicitly invite, value, and incorporate dissent and diverse opinions. Difference informs a more reflective, heterogeneous process of consideration, especially when it comes to potentially contentious issues.

 

Among the various organizations, there is great similarity in form with respect to coordinating members’ support for any given decision. Contemporary discourse that strongly advocates for more inclusiveness and participation in decision-making has clearly had an influence on espoused management practices across the organizational spectrum from BAH to UCaPP. Nonetheless there are considerable differences in the underlying in-use theories of action at play.

 

We can use an analogous approach to understanding the differences in how the respective organizations scale. One could say that any organization scales to increase its effectiveness, conventionally thought of as either achieving more of its objectives, or increasing its ability to access and deploy resources (Campbell, 1977). In contrast, a UCaPP organizations such as Inter Pares scales by increasing the scope and domain of its intended effects through engagements with various partners and coalition members throughout the world, irrespective of other, more traditional measures of organizational effectiveness. Sam relates a lengthy anecdote about Inter Pares’s role in facilitating an extended agricultural and agriculture-policy exchange between Canadian organic farmers and their counterparts in India (Sam-1-57/63). In my conversation with Sam, I asked, “If you approach the issue of scaling from, how do we scale in terms of our core values, the effects that we want to create in the world, it seems that you’re scaling pretty darn well,” (despite remaining at a headcount of fifteen people). Sam agrees and explains:

 

I’d say that is the way that we scale up. We work a lot in coalitions, and in collaboration with other organizations in trying to implicate more and more people into, and draw more and more actors into the work that we’re focused on. And we try to include in that also, infusing our ideals and approaches as much as possible or appropriate. (Sam-1-106)

 

Thus, both BAH and UCaPP organizations scale to increase their effectiveness. With BAH organizations, effectiveness is measured in terms of owned or controlled resources that are deployed in the pursuit of defined objectives and goals. UCaPP organizations, it seems, feel a lesser need to control or own the means – including people – that enable the creation and dissemination of its intended effects which are based in shared values and participation in common cause.

 

The divestiture of legitimated control that characterizes both Inter Pares, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Unit 7, is predicated on the dissemination of what is usually considered privileged knowledge. The value of socializing information can be neither underestimated nor overstated in a collaborative leadership environment that provides true empowerment—enabling every member to commit the organization to a particular tactical activity or strategic direction. Jean explains the value and seemingly paradoxical benefits of full attendance at the program meetings[4], echoing many of Loreen’s observations:

 

We spend, some people think, an inordinate amount of time up front, having meetings with each other, talking to each other about things. In many organizations, for instance, the program meeting would be only the people directly involved in program. Here, it involves everybody. Actually, it’s really, really useful for many reasons. People who are directly involved in program can often bring perspective that programmers lose sight of. And, often, somebody who might be in fundraising, or donor relations, or doing the books, will learn something about the program because of the conversations, about the context, or about the analysis, that actually makes something that she’s just been asked to do make absolute sense. … It makes the wheels turn easier, so you don’t have to come up with fifteen administrative checks and balances, and have somebody look over your shoulder as you’re trying to make every decision which, actually, is a waste of energy. (Jean-1-54)

 

The idea that involving everyone in all matters is more efficient over the long term is, at first blush, counter-intuitive. However, it creates unanimity in supporting decisions, eliminates undermining, and creates a shared understanding of the organization’s present reality in each person’s mind. Jean continues:

 

There’s a whole bunch of fallout from having everybody there. One, is that you make a decision, and you know everybody’s behind it. And nobody’s going to be undermining it off in the corner, which I’m sure you’ve seen as well. Which [avoids] years-long battles going on, and nothing actually getting done. Or things getting done, and then getting undone, and then getting done again. We don’t have that. (Jean-1-57)

 

This approach takes a longer-term, integrated, and holistic operational view of the organization, rather than a shorter-term, narrower-scope, instrumental view based in specific, individual concerns. In the larger context of the organization in relation to the interconnected multiplicity of its constituencies, this approach represents a form of environmental sensing and feedforward process with respect to bringing continually changing, diverse contexts, active issues, and pending decisions back to the organization. These help to reinforce the sense of common cause and vested commitment among all organizational members:

 

The other thing that happens is that after every meeting, I have more of a sense of where this organism is right now, and it’s constantly evolving as people think, as people go through bad moods and then get out of them, or as we integrate new people and some people leave, it’s always evolving. (Jean-1-57)

 

Sustaining a Complex Culture

 

The evolution of Inter Pares’s direct membership is slow because of its very low turnover. Nonetheless, hiring and integration of new members is a thorough, and well thought-through process that is consistent not only with the organization’s values, but also with preserving and sustaining those values. As Jean describes, “we go through a fairly rigorous hiring process, and we’re looking for fit and aptitude. Sometimes we’re looking for a specific knowledge or expertise, but that’s actually more rare. The biggest priority is fit, aptitude, and political analysis” (Jean-1-59). She continues:

 

What I would mean by fit is, is this somebody who has an open mind? If one of their deeply held beliefs is challenged, are they going to just react, and just say, no, actually this is something I’m not even going to listen to? Or, are they somebody who will swallow hard and say, okay, let’s talk about that. Why do you think that? Because one the things that we need to be doing in this work more is to question what we’re doing. We’re in a business in which we actually disagree with most of the business, but we’re that forum. And so there’s all sorts of contradictions we’re living everyday. You have to have a strong tolerance for ambivalence, for ambiguity. You have to have a very strong norte, polar star, orientation, to be able to, to be able to keep following what you think, rather than what you dragged into, in the normal course of events in this biz. There’s a saying, author I don’t remember. Somebody, a French philosopher who I always love, [said] this: you have to remember to live the way you think, or you are in grave danger of ending up thinking the way you live[5]. (Jean-1-63)

 

Note the very strong connection suggested in Jean’s description of fit between one’s personal, lived values, and the way those values are expressed through one’s actions. This points to the necessity of aligning the values of the UCaPP organization as a whole with those of the individual members, rather than the other way around.

 

How does an organization actually ensure the correct “fit” in selecting new members? And, without a specific human resources “expert,” how does Inter Pares manage both the hiring process itself, and the necessary organizational learning that enables a consistent and sustainable hiring and integration process over time? Inter Pares’s hiring committee composition ensures sustainable learning in keeping with its co-management ethos: one person who would be working with the new hire, one who has never been on the hiring committee before to provide experience, and one other who would be continually available throughout the process. After the typical short-list process of determining those who are technically qualified, articulate, (depending on the circumstances of the position) literate in both official languages, and presentable in initial interviews with the hiring committee, the top choice is invited to participate in an experience that is more initial acculturation than it is job interview:

 

Whoever we’ve recommended will be invited to come back for what we call the rounds, which is where they meet with all of the other colleagues. In the past, those were all one-on-one, two-hour interviews; we often pair up now, though people have the option of going on their own. So by then, there’s only one person who’s doing that rounds. They’re not in competition with anyone else. And it’s really an opportunity for people to explore whether we’ve made the right recommendation, and to get different perspectives on that person that would surface through multiple conversations. Also, for the potential incoming person, it’s a chance for them to meet everybody, and to get a sense of whether this is a workplace they’d be interested in, and to have fifteen different views or facets of the organization… And also, aside from it being a more informed decision by having more information about that person, it’s also a broadly shared decision. (Sam-1-39)

 

The extensive process of “rounds” is the beginning of acculturation into Inter Pares’s social contract and appreciation of its collective values and ethos. Not only is the collaborative, co-management structure described to the candidate; the potential new member actually participates in it as part of the hiring process. As Sam describes, “I think the process would really reveal to yourself, if you’re engaged with, and enthusiastic about this type of management model, because if you’re not, … that could, I think, lead to some doubts” (Sam-1-47). Sam reflects on her own experience of the hiring process as a confirmation of her alignment with Inter Pares’s values:

 

When I first was invited to come for the rounds, I thought at first, wow, this seems really lengthy. But then, as an interviewee, when I was participating in it, I thought this makes complete sense. I think that revealed my alignment with Inter Pares’s views and philosophies on things. It seemed very logical that, if you’re going to be working with everybody very collegially, you would have a chance to meet everybody, and vice versa. Especially in a non-hierarchical organization, you could all take a decision together to welcome a new member amongst you. (Sam-1-49)

 

Edgar Schein (1992) describes organizational culture in terms of processual learned behaviours in response to particular situations. At the third-level of culture in Schein’s conception are the deep-seated and tacit cultural understandings that effect in-use theory of action, which “have become so taken for granted that … behaviour based on any other premise [is] inconceivable” (p. 22). Despite the considerable time investment required, the rounds process as part of Inter Pares’s hiring ritual helps to immediately inculcate potential new employees into that third-level of organizational culture. Inter Pares’s program-operational effectiveness is completely intertwined with its value set expressed through its culture. Thus, such an extensive acculturation process – even before the new member is officially hired – is as important to the organization’s ongoing sustainability as is, for instance, hiring individuals with the appropriate content knowledge.

 

Consistency and alignment of values with the organization’s external constituencies is a similarly important consideration for a UCaPP organization like Inter Pares, as important as value alignment among its internal members. Sam describes the equivalently slow process of “getting to know” a new organization with which Inter Pares may form an alliance—a process quite analogous to “the rounds”:

 

Other organizations, we’ve gotten to know over the years – often it can be through chance meetings with people at conferences who are working in countries, and we really like their politics, or what they’re doing… We start exploring collaborations, and perhaps might plan some things together, or invite them to conferences, and then after some time, explore whether adding in a financial element in terms of raising funds on their behalf, whether that makes sense given the relationship. (Sam-1-55)

 

Sam gives an example of an organization in Sudan, one of whose members met an Inter Pares member by happenstance in another forum. That led to a subsequent small collaboration in another group, that evolved into a larger, direct collaboration, that resulted in a stronger direct-support connection involving fundraising. Rather than being a specific, purposeful or mission-fulfilling goal or objective, bringing in a new organization as a coalition-member is “usually a very organic process” (Sam-1-55). The decision about how to proceed emerges as the nature of the relationships evolves, without a specific, pre-determined endpoint or decision timeframe.

 

The evaluation process at Inter Pares – especially for new colleagues – is continual, ongoing, and holistic, rather than being framed as a periodic, singular evaluative event per se. Evaluation is focused on individuals’ “larger institutional integration” rather than on strictly judging performance in the context of assessing whether the person was indeed the appropriate choice for the job—more checking-in as opposed to checking-up:

 

We have what we call a reference group for new colleagues when they come in that, for a year, they have a group of people that they can talk to, and who assume a responsibility for their larger institutional integration, rather than having it fall just upon the people who will work most immediately with that new person. So we might set up a reference group that might meet with that person to talk about their issues, and try to problem-solve with them.

 

We have the possibility of a staff evaluation, where a staff can say, I would like to go through an evaluation, and have people work through with me my workload issues. And sometimes, it’s the COG [that] does what we call checking the ice, of just saying I think that so-and-so has been under a lot of strain lately, and why don’t we recommend that they take a week of paid leave, or to suggest that we change the committee structure a bit to take them off a committee, or to encourage a particular redistribution of work to help them—whatever means people think might help a person through a particularly rough patch. (Sam-1-35)

 

Like many other organizations, Inter Pares has a probationary period of sorts to assess the performance of new members with respect to both professional and interpersonal competencies. However, as might be expected, the process of assessment is considerably different from that in conventional (especially BAH) organizations in intent, implementation, and effect, as Sam outlines:

 

When staff first come to Inter Pares, after the first six months, they write a self-evaluation. An evaluation committee is appointed to discuss any issues that might be raised. And so, staff write a description of their work, and what they’ve been doing, and how they feel about their learning and their integration process, and how they’ve been performing so far, and how things are going. I would say six to eight pages. And that is circulated to all staff, and every staff member in the co-management structure writes a written response. And so it’s a really good opportunity for the new staff to get feedback on how they’ve been doing, and primarily that ends up being an affirmation and encouragement of how well they’re doing so far…

 

If there have been any gaps in their learning that still haven’t been covered, or any failure in the support systems to help them integrate, then those are identified and addressed, and any measures needed to address those are suggested and then monitored, usually either by the evaluation committee, or by that person’s reference group. And the notes to the evaluation meeting are circulated so everybody knows this is how the issues that got flagged have been addressed. And everybody has a chance to read all of those responses—they’re also circulated. And then after a year, the evaluation committee touches base again, and looks at where things were six months prior, and has there been resolution to any issues. (Sam-1-65)

 

Like Unit 7, Inter Pares’s evaluations are extensive narratives, qualitative and contextually based. True to its collaborative practices throughout every other aspect of the institution, even employee evaluation is collaborative, and founded on a notion of collective responsibility among all members—witness mention of yet to be covered “gaps in their learning” and “failure in the support systems.” The six-month self-evaluation process is framed as a collective reflection of the individual in relation to the other members and institution as a whole, and the other members in relation to the new person. Because everyone is both vested and implicated in the individual’s success, the new member feels safe to make honest reflections and to seek guidance.

 

The difference between this milestone and a typical “probationary period,” is significant. Conventionally during this period, a person’s position is tacitly, but most definitely, in constant jeopardy as their ongoing employment is contingent on a successful exit from probation—the language similarity to attaining freedom from penal incarceration is not lost on most people. On the contrary, in a UCaPP organization like Inter Pares, members assume an explicit, shared, mutual, and collaborative responsibility for a new member’s integration and personal success. At the first anniversary of a new member joining, there is, as Sam mentions, a subsequent review and something more:

 

We have a social contract that is the staff agreement, and even though, legally, they’re employed as full-time staff, it’s a bit of a ceremonial welcoming to say, you made it through your first year, way to go, and people are celebrated for having made it through their first year. (Sam-1-65)

 

Self-evaluations are not only for new members. Each year at Inter Pares’s annual retreat, members participate in a reflection-oriented self- and mutual-assessment. When compared to conventional annual review processes in more-BAH organizations, the distinction between the respective cultures of checking-in at Inter Pares, versus the more traditional culture of checking-up, becomes clear:

 

Every member of the co-management structure writes a self-evaluation each summer in time for our fall retreat … where we go away for a few days, and talk about institutional issues. … Everybody has written a self-evaluation that’s been circulated prior to that retreat, so you have a sense for where people are at in the work, how they’re doing, what workload issues there are. People are also meant to talk about what they’re doing, because sometimes there are certain aspects that, for whatever reason, haven’t been socialized, and so it’s a way to share what your big priorities were over the last year, and what you’ve been able to accomplish. … People have ten to fifteen minutes to talk. So it’s meant to be more of an existential level, you know, this is how I’m feeling in my life, and in my work so far, and these are the major things that have been affecting me, and this is how I’m doing generally. (Sam-1-67)

 

For the longer-serving members, there is a recently instituted reference-group evaluation, akin to that provided to new members, which occurs at least once every seven years. It is a combination of work evaluation, a systemic reflection on the whole person in relation to the holistic institutional environment, and a form of long-term, reflective life therapy. The reference group evaluation is a larger-scale, well-focused check-in that is substantially different from the typical annual review in BAH organizations. BAH annual reviews tend to concentrate on specific task-oriented goals and so-called growth or personal development objectives that are exclusively related to the instrumentality of the job. In Inter Pares’s case, a reference group reflection includes and expands beyond the person’s assigned job responsibilities to incorporate other aspects consistent with the organization’s values and lived ethos.

 

Without the (sometimes not-so-tacit) threat of suitability for one’s office as reported in a BAH environment such as Organization A, for instance, or a need to rank individuals for either rivalrous, scarce rewards or punishments, this framing of reflective assessment via checking-in helps to enable a sense of safety in the evaluative space. Moreover, by eliminating the need for either defensiveness, retrospective justification, or objective validation, the organization creates its own opportunities for learning, improvement, and continual emergence towards greater effectiveness.

 

One additional significant aspect of living a culture of checking-in involves the institution itself as a distinct actant that participates in the annual retreat check-in:

 

This is more like a program check-in. … There are questions around the institution. Do you feel there is anything at the institutional level that you need to bring to our attention? What can we do about it? Do you have proposals? So it’s … trying to get more at the assessment part of it, but understanding that it’s not an evaluation—like getting a self-assessment and kind of a cultural, ambient assessment as well. (Jean-1-97)

 

Overall, these extensive, holistic, and rich, contextual reflection processes create a depth of common understanding among all members. That common understanding enables the level of coordination, socialization of knowledge, and trust that provide for empowered autonomy and agency for each individual in a ground of collective responsibility and mutual accountability. It represents an organizational embodiment of “managing the action/reflection polarity” (Laiken, 2002a).

 

As I have mentioned several times, a significant contributor to these processes is the practice of regular check-in. Integrally considering the reflexive effects created in the union of one’s personal and work lives reinforces the characteristically UCaPP notion of work/life integration: “At the staff meetings, we have personal check-ins, where people talk about their personal life and [life] at work. It’s a voluntary thing, and people share elements that they feel might be affecting their work-life as they see fit” (Sam-1-27).

 

Integrating work and life, being aware of the social and psychological effects of such integration, and being able to articulate that intersection for one’s colleagues is expressed through the colloquial term, “where you’re at”:

 

Where you’re at. I mean that as a statement about one’s mental health, or psychic state, or if it’s with respect to workload, then how you’re feeling about that, how you’re managing that. Because we feel that part of responsible management is to ask for other people’s assistance when you feel like you’re overwhelmed, rather than foundering under the weight of your work, and having the work suffer. (Sam-1-29)

 

What is interesting and significantly different from more traditional environments, is that admitting that one is overwhelmed is not understood as a sign of weakness, inability, or incompetence in one’s responsibilities. If a culture is expressed in terms of collective responsibility and mutual accountability, an individual surfacing a state of feeling overwhelmed to his/her colleagues is consistent with being mutually accountable for the work getting done. Moreover, that overwhelmed individual acts on the sense of collective responsibility felt by all members to rectify the situation.

 

Individuals commonly feel an obligation to be individually accountable for their own psychological wellbeing, and take individual responsibility for remediation. However, in that more conventional environment, the manager faces an almost intractable conflict: s/he has a primary responsibility and individual accountability for specific objectives, goals, and outcomes for his/her department that are inevitably compromised by an individual’s psychological incapacity. Resolving that tension humanistically in a primarily instrumental environment certainly depends on the individual humanity and willingness of the manager. However, that resolution tends not to scale in the individual’s favour organizationally as, for example, Stan reports in Organization M, and several participants from Organization A similarly relate. Essentially, whatever individual humanity may exist between an individual and their direct superior in a BAH environment tends to scale to collective callousness the farther up the hierarchy the “resolution” originates.

 

In contrast, Sam describes how the tension between individual and collective responsibility is negotiated in a primary relationship-based view of people that characterizes a UCaPP organization:

 

I’d say there’s a balance that happens. On one hand, we do have collective concern for our colleagues’ mental health, but we also recognize that a certain onus lies on each individual for their own mental health, and to flag items for colleagues. And so sometimes that could be reviewed in hindsight, you know, to look back on a situation and to say, I think that as a group we should have stepped in more in that situation. And other times we might say, we’ve talked about this person’s situation on a recurring basis, and ultimately they have to take responsibility… It’s not enough to say as a group, well this person’s a workaholic, and we’ve talked too much about it, and only they can address that. Inevitably it will have a negative impact on the work of the whole. And so collectively, we have to take steps to address it. (Sam-1-31)

 

The Nature of Collaborative Leadership

 

Coordinating tactical and strategic activities, as well as the leadership process itself, are conflated in Inter Pares in a way that represents something more than relatively straightforward decision-making based on objectively considered criteria. This circumstance has to do with what Jean describes as “the right and responsibility” that inheres in each member to commit the organization to a particular direction, especially with respect to external constituencies:

 

We are responsible for the organization, and we’re all accountable to the organization. And, we all get benefit from the organization. So we work on the principle of parity. Parity of responsibility, accountability, obligation, as well as parity of what we get out of the organization. … And I’m doing that as a manager, knowing that I am going to be the person who manages the fallout, if there is any. So while I know that I have the right and responsibility to do these things while I’m out, I also have the responsibility to ensure that I’m right— as right as I can get. And I understand my organization as well as I can, so that I can think about what the fallout might be. Whether it’s fallout in terms of, was that a very effective thing to do, to, did it undermine something else that we’re trying to do? Then, when I come back to the institution, it’s the institution’s obligation to support me. And, if there is fallout, if there’s a problem, even if they think I was wrong, [they will] support me, and be able to figure out, okay, now what do we do?" (Jean-1-43).

 

In this short excerpt, Jean describes Inter Pares’s collaborative leadership troika of individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability. Collaborative leadership is situated in the context of a shared space of socialized knowledge and the common – that is, integrative – sense of understanding of institutional and subject-matter content, and the multiplicity of grounds that create meaning. Being true to Inter Pares’s social contract, this sense of mutual understanding creates trust, from which the collective mind, positions, and approaches – “mostly approaches rather than positions” (Jean-1-37) – emerge.

 

One of the main, I don’t know whether you’d call it methodology, probably modality is better, that we have is—we use the technical term, winging it. So, when we’re here around the table, we do our analysis together. We understand our institution, we understand where we’re coming from. When we engage in the conversations, we understand it better and better. That allows us to go out and be the executive director, each and every one of us. We can make decisions for our organization. (Jean-1-27)

 

Since each member of Inter Pares has the ability to commit the organization to external constituencies, leadership cannot be embodied in any one person. Rather, it is collaborative leadership-as-process. Collaborative leadership is neither anarchy nor simple consensus—both of which create a vacuum of leadership. Collaborative leadership and true individual empowerment do not suggest the absence of responsibility or accountability—it is quite the opposite, in fact. Notably, leadership at Inter Pares is constructed as a complex, emergent process, embodied within the entirety of the organization-as-entity, rather than in any one person. There is, as well, a notion of organizational mindfulness that transcends the individual’s specific subject-matter responsibility: “It is our responsibility as a co-manager here, to understand the organization, and to make sure we understand, and can represent the collective mind, the collective positions and approaches” (Jean-1-37). This concept in a conventional, BAH organization exists solely as part of the subject matter expertise of the professional managers in a manner consistent with scientific management’s division of labour.

 

When individual autonomy and agency goes wrong, when the organization becomes committed to a direction that is untenable, for instance, the immediate reaction is not to restrict members’ autonomy or institute procedures of so-called checks and balances. Jean recoils at the mere thought of such restrictions: “That would kill us. It would just kill us. It would kill the reason we’re here. And I actually had a visceral reaction when you said that!” (Jean-1-54). Rather, there is a collective reflection on, “at what point should this person have brought this back to the group? It needed to have been more socialized that it was, and people could have helped her about raising some red flags on a few things” (Jean-1-53). And the group, collectively, extricates the institution from the errant decision.

 

Inter Pares delineates the diametric distinction between the BAH and UCaPP leadership and decision-making models. In a more-BAH organization, the time required to completely socialize information is seen as detracting from the efficiency required to expediently accomplish instrumental objectives. Individuals are socialized to perceive non-direct-task-related information as being generally irrelevant to their personal context—the task at hand. Hence, they are often unwilling or unable to assimilate it in the larger, organizational context, or beyond. Thus, decision-making is reserved for the elite few, relatively higher in the organizational hierarchy, whose specific subject-matter expertise is nominally the process of purposeful, objective-oriented decision-making.

 

Administrative and bureaucratic procedures become necessary to supply appropriate information to that small group of individuals, and to provide the organization with whatever checks and balances are necessary to ensure integrity in decision-making processes. These processes themselves often consume tremendous time and resources, sometimes overshadowing the time and effort required to actually accomplish the nominal task-at-hand in large bureaucracies. Additionally, they can become a locus of passive control as contentious or controversial issues disappear into the maw of bureaucratic and administrative procedure and review.

 

More-UCaPP organizations invest considerable time to socialize information and involve people who may not have a direct, purposeful reason for participating in that information sharing. However, the extensive socializing of information means that each member can act relatively autonomously, assessing circumstances with a high degree of accuracy. This socialization enables the organization to move quickly in actually accomplishing the task-at-hand. Given the right organizational context – a social contract, for instance, to which all members are committed – leadership-embodied-as-process does not have an explicit and distinct control function that creates the necessity for explicit and distinct administrative controls. Therefore, the UCaPP organization requires neither the gatekeeper aspect of decision-making nor the consequential construct of leadership being embodied in an individual.

 

This is counter-intuitive—the idea that involving everyone in socializing all information and collectively making all decisions provide a more expedient and effective leadership approach overall. However, it creates unanimity in supporting decisions that are ultimately taken, and eliminates undermining, and undoing and redoing initiatives depending on internal organizational politics. Perhaps most important, it creates a sense in each person’s mind of “where this organism is right now, and it’s constantly evolving. … I always have an ongoing touchstone about what I’m representing out in the world” (Jean-1-57).

 

Leadership-as-process enacted in Inter Pares is rooted in the practical reality of human dynamics which is far from utopian. There are circumstances in which individuals may assert themselves in what otherwise might appear to be a leadership role—in this, the appearance or figure seems to be no different than in a BAH organization. However, it is very different in ground – the context and intent – and therefore, in its effect compared to more conventional organizations:

 

It’s more just the natural dynamics of leadership that happen in terms of people having greater authority based on their knowledge or expertise in one particular area, and people might turn to that, or defer to that. Or perhaps if you are a more timid person, you might not assert yourself as much as a more confident person. So there are the dynamics that play out everyday in life, but without the addition and entrenchment of it by having a hierarchical structure internally. And there’s also a conscious reflection on power, in that we share institutional responsibility and privilege as much as we can. (Sam-1-97)

 

In other words, a UCaPP organizational philosophy, ethos, and management practices will not negate what Sam describes as the natural power dynamics that exist among people. By the same token, neither does the UCaPP organization reinforce or reward what are often problematic effects of those supposedly natural dynamics, nor those who would exploit them to their personal benefit. Irrespective of any other consideration, this aspect alone offers considerable hope to remediate many of the dysfunctions that have characterized the beginning of the 21st century—remnants of the 20th century’s BAH heritage.

 

Read on: The Natures of Organization


[1] In subsequent correspondence, Sam points out that activists in other Northern countries who are part of North-South relations relate to their own countries in a similar manner.

[2] Now renamed “economic justice.”

[3] There is a separate Human Resources committee that focuses exclusively on developing human resources policy; administration and implementation of the policy remain with the COG. Any recommendations of either the HR or COG committees must be brought to an all-staff meeting to render a decision.

[4] Program meetings concern geo-political and thematic operations activities in which Inter Pares is involved based on the various “clusters,” as opposed to management infrastructure issues that are the subject matter for the staff meetings. Both meetings are held monthly and include all members of Inter Pares.

[5] From French author, Paul Bourget’s work, Le Démon de midi, “Il faut vivre comme on pense, sans quoi l'on finira par penser comme on a vécu”—translated approximately as, one must live the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one has lived.

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