Consensual Hierarchies and Nurtured Networks: How Understanding Watersheds and Mushrooms Can Improve Your Organization

Image from Kaltaka

Adam Brock, Director of Social Enterprise at Joining Vision and Action

This post is the third in a series explaining how the natural patterns can inform the work of nonprofits, social entrepreneurs and others working for social change. The content is adapted from “Change Here Now: Permaculture Solutions for Personal and Community Transformation”, the new book by JVA’s Director of Social Enterprise Adam Brock.

A church group, a business, and a protest movement each have vastly different objectives, norms, and cultures, but they all share some common challenges. Many institutions, for instance, are catalyzed by a single charismatic leader, yet most of them struggle to survive after that leader steps down. Though a great number of organizations are arranged in some form of hierarchy, many would like to make their participants feel empowered as co-creators. And nearly every nonprofit or social enterprise must reckon with the tension between raising funds and fulfilling their mission. Clearly, then, it’s important for changemakers to have a good understanding of the patterns that allow groups to function at their highest potential. Two of the most fundamental patterns of group dynamics can be seen in the hierarchy and the network: the yin and yang of organizations.

Let’s start by examining the multi-leveled pattern of the hierarchy.

In natural systems, hierarchies take the physical form of branching structures: think lungs, watersheds, or tree roots. Each of these examples share the core functions of collecting or distributing, and a look at the ubiquitous hierarchies in our human institutions reveals the same functions. Businesses, for instance, collect profits from customers, and government agencies distribute public services to citizens. Like the branches and canyons found in nature, social hierarchies tend to be resistant to change once they form, and are prone to weakness or collapse if one of the “branches” is cut off.

If branching patterns are efficient, networks, meanwhile are resilient. Found in the filaments of fungi and the interspecies relationships of an ecosystem – not to mention the structures of our own brains – networks excel at withstanding shocks and creating new solutions to complex problems. Yet maintaining all those connections takes a lot of energy. The human brain, for example, requires ten percent of the oxygen in our blood, despite being only two percent of the body’s weight. Again, human networks share many of the same traits as their ecological cousins: it takes longer for groups to arrive at consensus than it does for a manager to make a unilateral decision, and much like our brains, the internet requires about a tenth of society’s energy supply to sustain itself.

So where does this leave us as changemakers? How can we apply the insights of natural networks and hierarchies to improving our own work? Here are a few tips:

Make your hierarchies consensual.

Most hierarchies we engage with today are vast, involving thousands of workers and many layers of management. It’s no wonder, then, that we suffer from “hierarchy fatigue” – a deep suspicion. But by keeping hierarchies transparent and limiting their size, we can make use of their benefits while limiting their downsides. In these so-called “consensual hierarchies”, leadership rotates on a regular basis and is always subject to recall by those at the lower levels. Most importantly, the total size of the organization is small enough that even the lowliest intern is able to have access to the highest decision maker.

Nurture your networks.

Fed up with the rigid, slow hierarchies of corporations and government, many idealistic thinkers turn to horizontal networks to embody their ideals of a fully participatory society. These leaderless groups can be powerful and innovative in the right contexts – but all too often, we confuse “no authority” with “no leadership” and allow these groups to be tanked by large personalities, unproductive bickering, and interminable meetings. Rather than let these imbalances wreck the group, smart leaders cultivate “nurtured networks”: horizontal groups that have just the right amount of structure to thrive. These groups engage in naming norms at the beginning and throughout the group’s lifecycle. They employ skilled facilitation to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. They set clear goals and have a defined process for achieving them. They create mechanisms for people to be held accountable to their actions and for the group to converge and disperse.

Combine the best of both worlds.

Whether in nature or culture, neither hierarchies nor networks patterns exist in isolation. Tree roots connect with mycelial networks to maximize their nutrient absorption. Within the levels of bureaucracy in a big business, there are usually formal or informal teams that function as networks. Rather than an either/or situation, then, it’s more of a both/and opportunity. Each of the groups you’re a part of are likely to have elements of networks and hierarchies built into their structure. Now that you understand the conditions that make them more or less effective, you can apply that understanding to your own situation, designing hybrid structures that allow you and your team to thrive!

Read previous Permaculture For Social Change Principles 

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