Building blocks and open source organisations

No doubt your organisation has lots of moving parts, many of which are specific to what you do.

But it’s probably also made up of generic components – accounts and inventory management, conditions of employment and contracts, safeguarding policy and procedures, communications manual – that you could drag and drop into another organisation with a bit of customisation.*

We have some way to go to good documentation at Saya Suka Membaca, but we’re getting ready to share them.

Let me know if you know any groups have good versions of these things and is sharing them… ideally bilingual in English and Indonesian!

There are only a few here, but it’s a start.

Financial Management

  • Mango has some great resources for NGO financial management

Child Protection and Safeguarding

Organisational Health

*See also: Easier tomorrow

Machine. Ecosystem. (5) – Duncan Green on systems thinking and development

A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.

A defining property of human systems is complexity; because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse or apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – ‘if A, then B’ – with profound consequences in terms of failures, frustration, and missed opportunities [when the plan is thrown out by unexpected consequences within the plan, or by things that were never in it]. As Mike Tyson memorably said, ‘everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.’

Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Baking a cake is a linear, ‘simple’ system. All I need to do is find a recipe, buy the ingredients, make sure the oven is working…

Baking a cake is also a fairly accurate metaphor for the approach of many governments, aid agencies, and activist organisations. They decide on a goal (the cake), pick a well-established method (the recipe), find some partners and allies (the ingredients), and off they go.

The trouble is that real life rarely bakes like a cake. Engaging in a complex system is more like raising a child. What fate would await your new baby if you decided to go linear and design a project plan setting out activities, assumptions, outputs, and outcomes for the next twenty years and then blindly followed it?

Deng Xiaoping said, “We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one.”

Duncan Green – How Change Happens (amazon)

Machine. Ecosystem. (4) – Marc Andreessen on Systems Thinking

Think about it [systems thinking] through the lens of a new tech product, which is kind of the centre of what we do [at Andreesen Horowitz]… If you’re not a systems thinker basically you say “I’m going to build a really great product, and then I’m going to have a really great product, and it’s going to be great, because it’s a really great product.”

The systems thinking more is that that’s just the first step because it’s not just about the product. It’s about okay, now the product is going to enter into the marketplace, and there are going to be customers that are going to have a point of view on your product, and there are going to be competitors that are going to be trying to take you out with a better product. And you’ll put your product in retail, and the retailers are going to try to gouge you on price, and make your product uneconomic to manufacture, and the press is going to write a review of your product, and maybe the reviewer is going to have a really bad day and he’s going to say horrible, horrible things… and your employees are hard at work and they build the first product, and you assume they’re going to be with you to build the second product, and maybe they will, or maybe they won’t, because maybe someone else will hire them.

And so with any kind of creative endeavor, with anything we do in our world – and this is for products or for companies – they’re launching into technically what is called – there’s actually a mathematical term – a complex adaptive system – the world. And inherently it’s not a predictable system, it’s not a linear system, it doesn’t behave in ways that you can expect, kind of by definition. So they say “complex” because there are many, many dimensions and variables, and then “adaptive”, like it changes. Things change. So the introduction of a new product changes the system and then the system recalibrates around the product.

And so as a consequence, to launch a new tech product and have it succeed you have to have a keen awareness of all the different elements of the system. You have to have a willingness to engage in the entire system, and it’s a gigantic problem generally if you’re in denial about that, if you’re not willing to think in systems terms.

Marc Andreessen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman*

*Full transcript here.

Machine. Ecosystem. (1)

Here are two useful ways to view your organisation: as machine, and as ecosystem.

A machine is usually a complicated system: lots of moving parts, not necessarily easy to understand… but consistent and predictable once you do understand it, with a limited number of inputs and outputs:

  • Fail to put fuel in your car, and you can predict fairly accurately when it will stop.
  • Let your hard-drive fill up, and your computer will slow down.
  • Leave popcorn on the stove too long, and it will start to burn.
  • Run out of money, and everyone goes home.

This type of ‘complicated’ is largely reserved for inanimate objects. It seems obvious that things involving people – especially groups of people – won’t follow simple rules of cause and effect, and contemporary thinking is biased towards the back-to-nature sound of ‘ecosystem’ (‘people are not machines’), but there’s still lots of mileage in taking a systematic look at your organisation as a machine.

Mechanistic ‘if this, then that’ thinking runs the danger of over-simplifying things, but it’s great for working through regularly occurring processes. You have to take the time to think logically through processes like:

  • How money flows through your projects – how you make, request, receive and account for payments and expenses, and how cash flows through the organisation;
  • The logistics of product or service delivery and stock control;
  • How users contact you – or you contact customers, and how you make sure you respond in a timely and helpful way;
  • Completing reports on time, maintaining legal registrations;
  • Product development and regular (as opposed to custom or one-off) manufacturing;
  • Routine tasks like cleaning and maintenance.

Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited (amazon link) is a fantastic resource for thinking through your organisation as machine. If you often find yourself desperately trying to focus on doing the ‘real work’ while everything seems to be falling apart around you, this is the book for you. In Gerber’s words, you need to spend less time working in your business and spend more time working on your business, establishing the structures and systems that will keep the wheels on with far less effort from you.

The essential argument of the book is that you should have a clear and well documented system for every routine task in your organisation – and a system for managing and maintaining the systems, and for training people to use them. I don’t agree with his philosophy of aiming to turn your whole business into a MacDonald’s-alike franchise… but find his argument for making each part of your operation require the lowest-necessary level of skill compelling. The point is not to grow a business that can be run by robot, but rather to save time and creative and emotional energy for where it’s actually needed. If you want more time to do the ‘real work’, and/or are aiming to build something that will flourish even in your absence, you need to think like this.

Other resources for fine-tuning and automating your organisation as machine:

Systems: complicated and complex – Aaron Dignan

The engine inside a car is complicated. A complicated system is a causal system – meaning that it is subject to cause and effect. Although it may have many parts, they will interact with one another in highly predictable ways. Problems with complicated systems have solutions. This means that, within reason, a complicated system can be fixed with a high degree of confidence… here, experts can detect patterns and provide solutions based on established good practice…

Traffic, on the other hand, is complex. A complex system is not causal, it’s dispositional. We can make informed guesses about what it is likely to do (its disposition), but we can’t be sure. We can make predictions about the weather, but we can’t control it. Unlike complicated problems, complex problems cannot be solved, only managed. They cannot be controlled, only nudged. This is the domain of the butterfly effect, where a small change can lead to something big, and a big change can barely make a dent. Here expertise can be a disadvantage if it becomes dogma or blinds us to the inherent uncertainty present in our situation.

Complex systems are typically made up of a large number of interacting components – people, ants, brain cells, startups – that together exhibit emergent behavior without requiring a leader or central control. As a result, complex systems are more about the relationships and interactions among their components than about the components themselves. And these interactions give rise to unpredictable behavior. If a system surprises you, or has the potential to surprise you, it is likely complex. Software is complicated. Creating a software startup is complex. An airplane is complicated. What happens between people on board is complex. An assault rifle is complicated. Gun control is complex. Building a skyscraper is complicated. Cities are complex.

Aaron DignanBrave New Work

Some other complex (adaptive)* systems to bear in mind:

  • Your body – and pretty much all of the parts within it
  • Your thoughts, perceptions, moods
  • Your family
  • Your community
  • A classroom / school / seminar / conference
  • A team or organisation
  • An airport / shopping centre / supply chain
  • A forest / the climate

Conclusion: Most of the institutions that are important to us are complex adaptive systems that are themselves made up of of complex adaptive systems. The downside of this is that simple cause and effect thinking is far less useful than in a complicated system. The upside is that the right kind of butterfly could cause a wonderful storm…

The book is excellent so far. Thanks to Sharky for the tip.

*More on ‘adaptive’ in a future post

**See also:
The wrapper
More than Reading
Deep literacy: what it takes

… and my forthcoming post, Machine. Ecosystem. – which has been sitting unwritten since September.

Drucker on abandonment

Effective executives know that they have to get many things done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate. And the first rule for the concentration of executive efforts is to slough off the past that has ceased to be productive. The first class resources, especially those scarce resources of human strength, are immediately pulled out and put to work on the opportunities of tomorrow.

If leaders are unable to slough off yesterday, to abandon yesterday, they simply will not be able to create tomorrow.

Peter Drucker – The Effective Executive

The level of your systems

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

James Clear – Atomic Habits

If you want things to be easier tomorrow, it really helps to have strong systems in place. Most of the important things that you do go a lot better if you have a system for making sure that they happen:

  • a regular commitment to eat something delicious with family or friends
  • a standing order for the amount you’ve decided to invest every month… and save for maintenance of your house/car/wardrobe… and pay for life insurance (see Barefoot)
  • something that will make sure you exercise
  • a habit that will help you to learn
  • something fun that you’ll get a kick out of doing

You get the idea. Even creative work (perhaps especially creative work) benefits when you make regular time and space for it. What happens in the space might be different every time, but if there’s no space, nothing will happen.

Even if you really can’t stand to make a system for creativity, having systems for other things in your life will make spontaneity possible far more often.

Atomic Habits is a good place to start – check out his interview with James Clear on the Read to Lead Podcast.

Toolkit (v0.1)

My last post got me thinking again about the toolkit for making change and building a good future. What follows started out as the tail of that post but grew too long, so I’ve cut it off and put it here as a springboard to bounce off (or a wave to ride) later.

So here are some tools…

There are a set of practices and principles – many of them falling under the umbrella of normal ‘management’ – that are well-established and effective for running organisations. You will need to tailor them to your context, but understanding and applying them will make an enormous difference to your ability to build and run a sustainable and effective organisation. Drucker and Tom Peters are great places to start for foundational principles. Books like Financial Intelligence and 4DX are great for specifics.

There’s an overlapping set from the world of small business, startups and bootstrapping that will help you build the thing from nothing in the first place, and make it sustainable. The E-myth (which I’ve just discovered is available for a great price on amazon) is great for establishing operations (and overlaps with the previous category), as is Steve Blank‘s Startup Owners Manual (amazon) in combination with Alex Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation (amazon). I’ll make a post of videos and audio by these people and put a link to it here.

There are resources for thinking about marketing in the deep sense – making something that people want or need and sharing it with them in such a way that they see its value and talk about it to others – is another overlapping area. I’d start with Seth Godin – probably This is Marketing (amazon) or Purple Cow (amazon) – and throw in Bernadette Jiwa’s The Fortune Cookie Principle (amazon) as another good starting point.

And there’s a whole load of writing about personal growth and effectiveness that really helps you to get these things done…

And about writing and presenting and using information (particularly the web) well…

And about thinking about culture, economics, networks and the future

And I’ve clearly gone down a rabbit hole, so I’ll stop here.

Tim Harford: slow-motion multitasking

I love Tim Harford‘s stuff, and I’m surprised he hasn’t featured here before.

50 Things that Made the Modern Economy is a delightful romp through economic history from cuneiform to mobile money transfers by way of clocks and the Haber-Bosch process. For a more detailed review try this one by a chap called Ian Mann, who finishes off by describing it as ‘an intellectual smorgasbord’. He’s right… and it’s free on the podcasting app of your choice.

It’s a long time since I read The Undercover Economist, and I mainly remember the discussion of the positioning of coffee shops in the great opening chapter, and a story about a library with a leaky roof towards the end (?) where it tailed off…

I was going to recommend Messy, but it turns out that the book I was thinking was actually Adapt, which was, as I recall, quite good. One of these books contains a good riff on how a large pile of papers on your desk is actually quite a good filing system – as long as you put the last piece of paper you touched on top.

Intellectual CrossFit

T.H. is rather prolific, but I came here to recommend a recent TED talk, A Powerful Way to Unleash your Natural Creativity, in which he casts multitasking not as the villain but as the unlikely hero of creativity, intellectual enrichment, and general greatness… as long as it’s multitasking of the slow-motion variety, which he describes as intellectual CrossFit. I can only assume he’s read Hinterland and my posts on networks and hybrids.