Open Thinkering


Tag: management

The difference between individual and organisational decision-making

Often, when our co-op starts helping an organisation for the first time, we talk about organisational decision-making. To me, the way that organisations make decisions shows how effective they are now, and how effective they are likely to be in future as they grow.

No organisation likes to think they’re poor at decision-making. That’s because organisations are collections of individuals, and we as individuals don’t like to think we’re poor at decision-making. But individual and organisational decision-making are two separate things: you can have an organisation full of fantastic individual decision-makers, yet have poor organisational decision-making.

How can this be? How can individual people who are good at decision-making be part of an organisation which is poor at it? For me, the answer lies in three areas:

  • Context
  • Consent
  • Culture

None of this is rocket science, but it does take some intentional thinking to ensure these three things work together to ensure effective decision-making within organisations. In the following, I’m drawing solely on my own experience both with organisations as an employee, and outside organisations as a consultant.


In order to make a positive organisational decision it’s important to have as much relevant context as possible. In a startup situation, this often means that the founder, who has all of the context, makes most (if not all) of the major decisions as they can see the big picture and have all of the context in their head.

However, as an organisation grows, a founder’s individual decision-making on behalf of the organisation becomes a bottleneck. The founder cannot be expected to be up-to-date with every single thing that’s happening, so decisions are pushed to the edges.

At the edges, individuals or teams need to be able to make decisions that will not negatively impact other areas of the organisation. As such, they need to understand the context in which they are making the decision. In our experience, this means working openly (sharing everything publicly by default) or at least transparently (sharing everything within your organisation by default). Removing barriers to information helps knowledge workers flourish and make good organisational decisions.


Individuals and teams at the edges of organisations can have all of the context they need to make a decision, but if they do not have the consent to make that decision, they will be stymied.

Consent within an organisation is different to consensus. This is something I’ve discussed elsewhere, listing the advantages of doing so:

  1. Consent balances groups and individuals
  2. Consent allows for forward motion
  3. Consent is safe

The mantra here is ‘good enough for now, safe enough to try’. With that kind of attitude, the organisation can continue moving quickly and avoiding bottlenecks.


All of the above is for naught, however, if the organisational culture is one where recriminations are common. I’ve worked with and within organisations were line managers are passive-aggressively cc’d on emails to form an ‘audit trail’, and where witch-hunts follow decisions that ended up being problematic but were made in good faith and with all available information.

To be successful, organisations have to innovate. Part of innovation is failure, to figure out what doesn’t work, so that you can double-down on what does. If decisions made to the best ability of individuals or teams turn out to lead to problems, the best thing to do is to run a retrospective rather than apportion blame.

Ultimately, culture flows from the top of an organisation. Whoever is in charge has to personify the values for which the organisation stands, including a tolerance for decisions being made at the edges of the organisation. These decisions should be made in a way that has all of the necessary context, and in a consensual way. Whoever makes the decision should not fear reprisals, but rather be celebrated for being decisive.

To conclude, organisations should be continually thinking about how they make decisions, especially as they grow. I read somewhere once upon a time that organisations’ workflows break at multiples of three and ten and, if true, that certainly includes their decision-making.

The three things to consider when reviewing decision-making, in my experience, are context, consent, and culture. Get these right, and your organisations will have empowered people making decisions based on good information, and without fear of what might happen if they get things wrong.

Image based on an photo by Jan Genge

Remaining unmanaged

For me, there’s a sweet spot between working in a permanent role within an organisation, and working as a consultant on a short-term basis with many different organisations. Some call this ‘contracting’, but I prefer the term ‘remaining unmanaged’.

Venkatesh Rao riffed on this in a recent (subscriber-only) post:

In the gig economy, freedom is primarily freedom from being managed. It’s a freedom that can seem like a curse to those who either enjoy being managed, or are too inexperienced to have learned adequate self-management behaviors. But like it or not, this is the freedom you have in the gig economy, and there is an art to thriving under this freedom you must learn, or it turns into a burden.

Venkatesh Rao, The Art of Gig

He goes on to explain that the reason traditional organisations have people managers is to prevent failure. They exist to prevent employees:

  1. Doing the wrong thing (misdirect effort)
  2. Doing the thing wrong (make mistakes)
  3. Cutting corners and do poor work out of laziness
  4. Working too slowly, creating delays
  5. Gaming incentives and work to minimal standards
  6. Acting maliciously due to unresolved resentments
  7. Acting unreliably due to personal life issues
  8. Lying or cheating in reporting on work
  9. Failing to resolve conflict with other employees
  10. Becoming unable to work due to illness
  11. Failing due to lack the right resources to succeed
  12. Failing due to essential tools or systems failing

If you work outside a regular organisation, as I do as a member of a worker-owned co-op, then you have to learn how to self-manage. Interestingly, if you do this well enough, then you and your crack team can perform a better job than an entire traditional department.

The pandemic has shown what we already knew: it’s entirely possible to work from home and co-ordinate your activities with other talented, self-directed, emotionally mature people. Perhaps we no longer need managers?

Instead, what we need are process people; emotionally-intelligent, tech-savvy conveners of people across organisations. They can’t rely on hierarchy to get things done, so they have to navigate their networks, assembling and dismantling fluid teams.

To some extent, we’re already getting to this scenario in some sectors and for particular projects. For example, our co-op has helped form part of a couple of Catalyst digital teams, helping charities respond to the implications of COVID-19.

There are many things that won’t go back to the ‘normal’ after the pandemic. Hopefully there will be collective desire to self-manage a lot more, forming nimble teams to work with like-minded people on stuff we find valuable.

This post is Day 34 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

How to be an effective knowledge worker and ‘manage yourself’

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, at the moment I’m reading eight books on repeat every morning. One of these is Peter Drucker’s magnificent Managing Oneself. I’ve actually gifted it to a couple of Critical Friend clients as it’s so good.

There’s some great insights in there, and some sections in particular I’d like to share here. First off, it’s worth defining terms. Thomas Davenport, in his book Thinking for a Living defines knowledge workers in the following way:

Knowledge workers have high degrees of expertise, education, or experience, and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution or application of knowledge.

So I’m guessing that almost everyone reading this fits into the category ‘knowledge worker’. I certainly identify as one, as my hands are much better suited touch-typing the thoughts that come out of my head, sparked by the things that I’m reading, than building walls and moving things around!

Drucker says that we knowledge workers are in a unique position in history:

Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference?

This is a difficult thing to do and, to my mind, one that hierarchies are not great at solving. Every time I’m re-immersed in an organisation with a strict hierarchy, I’m always struck by how much time is wasted by the friction and griping that they cause. You have to be much more of a ‘grown-up’ to flourish in a non-paternalistic culture.

Drucker explains that knowledge workers who much ‘manage themselves’ need to take control of their relationships. This has two elements:

The first is to accept the fact that other people are as much individuals as you yourself are. They perversely insist on behaving like human beings. This means that they too have their strengths; they too have their ways of getting things done; they too have their values. To be effective, therefore, you have to know the strengths, the performance modes, and the values of your coworkers.
The second part of relationship responsibility is taking responsibility for communication. Whenever I, or any other consultant, start to work with an organization, the first thing I hear about are all the personality conflicts. Most of these arise from the fact that people do not know what other people are doing and how they do their work, or what contribution the other people are concentrating on and what results they expect. And the reason they do not know is that they have not asked and therefore have not been told.

The answer, of course, is to become a much more transparent organisation. Although The Open Organization is a book I’d happily recommend to everyone, I do feel that it conflates the notion of ‘transparency’ (which I’d define as something internal to the organisation) and ‘openness’ (which I see as the approach it takes externally).  For me, every organisation can and should become more transparent — and most will find that openness lends significant business advantages.

Transparency means that you can see the ‘audit trail’ for decisions, that there’s a way of plugging your ideas into others, that there’s a place where you can, as an individual ‘pull’ information down (rather than have it ‘pushed’ upon you). In short, transparency means nowhere to hide, and a ruthless, determined focus on the core mission of the organisation.

Hierarchies are the default way in which we organise people, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the best way of doing so. Part of the reason I’m so excited to be part of a co-operative is that, for the first time in history, I can work as effectively with colleagues  I consider my equals, without a defined hierarchy, and across continents and timezones. It’s incredible.

What this does mean, of course, is that you have to know what it is that you do, where your strengths lie, and how you best interact with others. Just as not everyone is a ‘morning person’, so some people prefer talking on the phone to a video conference, or via instant message than by email.

Drucker again:

Even people who understand the importance of taking responsibility for relationships often do not communicate sufficiently with their associates. They are afraid of being thought presumptuous or inquisitive or stupid. They are wrong. Whenever someone goes to his or her associates and says, “This is what I am good at. This is how I work. These are my values. This is the contribution I plan to concentrate on and the results I should be expected to deliver,” the response is always, “This is most helpful. But why didn’t you tell me earlier?”


Organizations are no longer built on force but on trust. The existence of trust between people does not necessarily mean that they like one another. It means that they understand one another. Taking responsibility for relationships is therefore an absolute necessity. It is a duty. Whether one is a member of the organization, a consultant to it, a supplier, or a distributor, one owes that responsibility to all one’s coworkers: those whose work one depends on as well as those who depend on one’s own work.

Reflecting on the way you work best means that you can deal confidently with others who may have a different style to you. It means it won’t take them weeks, months, or even years to figure out that you really aren’t  going to read an email longer than a couple of paragraphs.

[This] enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, “Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”

It’s a great book and, reading it at the same time as The Concise Mastery by Robert Greene is, I have to say, a revelation.

Image CC BY-NC gaftels