A friend from college told me recently that his startup was having major issues around organizational structure-- namely that they didn't have any structure. I asked how many people work at the startup, and he said 160. That makes total sense, I said. I told him about Dunbar's number, or the idea that we can only maintain personalized relationships with 150 people. Up until this point, startup founder(s) can maintain personal relationships with all new hires, and informally pass along their values, so there is less of a need for a structure. But as soon as a startup hits 150 people, the founders stop knowing everyone personally, and things get a bit crazy. When this happens, the founders need to dedicate time to formalizing team structure, processes, and values so that they can be passed along more formally through others in the company.
This got me thinking about a related concept that my friend Matt Porter told me about recently: The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Matt interviewed Clay Shirky, who introduced Matt to the concept. Clay and Matt talked about the concept in terms of our political climate, but Matt also thought the concept applied to startup organizations, and I agree.
The Tyranny of Structurelessness is an essay written in 1972 by Jo Freeman, an American feminist, political scientist, writer and attorney. Freeman believed that social movements needed some structure. She argued that even if we pretend that hierarchy in an organization doesn't exist, it will emerge anyway. But if openly allow some structure, we can at least keep leaders accountable.
This wise essay is incredibly applicable to today's startups. With holacracy and other self-management theories evolving, it's important to remember that structure and hierarchy can be helpful.
Freeman writes, "During the years in which the women's liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main -- if not sole -- organizational form of the movement. The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the over-structured society in which most of us found ourselves, and the inevitable control this gave others over our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this overstructuredness."
"Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable."
"For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. This is not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn't. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large. "Structurelessness" is organizationally impossible.
Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of "structurelessness," it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement. Mostly, we will have to experiment with different kinds of structuring and develop a variety of techniques to use for different situations.
Click here to read the essay and learn Freeman's Principles of Democratic Structuring.