By Caroline Savery, Editor/Associate Consultant at Joining Vision and Action

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of evaluating and experimenting with the rules in one’s life. I’d like to continue that conversation into the domain of rules governing the operations, management and governance of an organization.

Mostly in my career, I have worked with start-up cooperatives or short-term, horizontally organized creative teams. Sometimes the process of implementing organizational structure seemed burdensome, clunky and definitely “boring” to the participants. However, more often than not, a lack of transparency, strong policies or clear guidelines caused even more pain and suffering in the “lives” of these young organizations.

According to Lamar University, organizational structure is “the framework that helps employees achieve their goals and do their jobs.”[1] At its best, organizational structure should be designed to complement and facilitate your organization’s reason for being. It should be as “light” and flexible as possible for the scenarios you face, while also strong enough to withstand duress.

“I actually love GOOD rules!”

As a young adult, I grew increasingly compelled by an interior sense of morality and truth—and I had little respect for unearned, conventional forms of authority. Given this profile, one might think I hated rules. And I would have agreed with you. It was only after several years of working as a consultant for cooperatives when I realized: “I actually love GOOD rules!”

You see, as a consultant for start-up cooperatives, I typically go through a process of ongoing, dynamic assessment for organizations in early stages of formation and growth. My work involves constantly seeking out similar models, evaluating the best practices available in the field and cobbling together unique suggestions for my clients. Having helped form nearly a dozen nonprofit and co-op organizations since 2006, I’m pretty familiar with the common issues and patterns that tend to manifest. Gradually, my approach to this work has become exhaustively cooperative itself! I aim to find symbiosis and parallels with other similar groups, and use their successes and failures to inform my client’s model. My approach is: Let’s use what works and not make mistakes that others have already learned from! When you get right down to it, a lot of my client work comes down to educating and training about good rules.

Structure is essential.

Every organization needs structure. In fact, structure is fundamental to any living organism. My DNA is the code by which my body structures its various functions into organs and assembles its systems into a coherent whole. When you picture a human body dancing, you don’t worry what the spleen is up to, whether the nervous system is communicating effectively with the brain or how oxygen is circulating. Rather, you are transfixed by the elegance of the whole and you are impressed with the coordination of all parts working together. That’s what a successful organization might look like on the outside: streamlined, agile, efficient, smooth. The actual structures, at a glance, may be invisible, while the outstanding outcomes of the organization take center stage. The secret ingredient that makes success possible, however, is the protocols, processes and structures underpinning the operations—which, when they are working well, should appear invisible to the uninitiated observer.

It’s time to stop putting out fires.

When you don’t prepare with good structure, you should prepare to be constantly responding to crises and “putting out fires,” staying muddled and mired, never moving forward. When you choose the right rules—combining the right mix of ethics, drive, best practices and lessons learned—you are building a successful machine that will effortlessly churn out the results you seek.

Are you interested in designing good systems and structures for your organization? Check out our upcoming Social Enterprise Basecamp, where participants undergo an intensive learning-and-designing process, drawing on best practices and expert knowledge across a variety of social enterprise models (including cooperatives!)