Open Thinkering


Tag: organisation

TB872: Institutions, structures, and power

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

An image divided into two halves, each depicting the same forest but with different focuses. The left half illustrates the forest as a vibrant ecosystem, symbolizing the organisation, while the right half focuses on the physical layout of the forest, representing the structure. This image captures the idea of how an organisation maintains its essence despite changes in its structure.

One of the useful things about this module so far is the clarity around terminology. For example, take the following around the difference between ‘organisation’ and ‘structure’:

Many accounts say organisations are the product of acts of organising. This implies human agency and design. The term is, however, common in biology, thus reflecting what might be described as evolutionary ‘organising’ through drift and natural selection. We will say that organisations (the noun) are products of the action or process of organising, ordering, or putting into systemic form; the arrangement and coordination of parts into a systemic whole. Organisations thus contain processes, elements (often institutions) and structures.

Structures are not the same as organisations, as one can change without affecting the other, for example the cells in our body parts. While we live their organisation (the relations between the parts) is conserved. For example, in the post-COVID-19 world, have nation states begun to change organisations, structures, both or neither?

Organisations can pursue a purpose which might be understood as an emergent property of both relationships between elements (i.e. patterns of organisation) and elements, including institutions and structures. It is thus feasible, in theory at least, to agree some discernible purpose for organisations like a ministry, a finance department, a company, a mutual or the Roman Catholic Church. Many organisations, of course, lose track of their purpose or pursue purposes that may no longer be viable or useful to a society.

(adapted from Ison and Straw, 2020, as cited in the module guide)

I had a bit of a conversation with ChatGPT about this to think about different metaphors. Of the different options (music, theatre, gardens) I preferred the forest analogy, and asked it to create an image using DALL-E which I included at the top of this post. The left half of the image shows the forest as a vibrant ecosystem, symbolizing the organisation, while the right half focuses on the physical layout of the forest, representing the structure. The idea is that the image captures the idea of how an organisation maintains its essence despite changes in its structure.


  • Organisation can be thought of as the forest ecosystem as a whole, including all of the trees, plants, animals, as well as the interactions between them. Not only that, but the forest ecosystem as ‘organisation’ can be thought of as the overall system: its health, diversity, and functionality. The organisation/ecosystem’s balance and survival depend on these relationships and processes.
  • Structure is like the physical layout of the forest. Trees are planted, paths are laid out, and different areas of the forest are segmented (e.g. dense planting vs clearings). This ‘structure’ can change over time by new paths being made, areas cleared, or trees planted, without fundamentally altering the forest as an ecosystem. This is similar to how, in an organisation, the ‘structure’ refers to how various parts are arranged (e.g. departments, teams) which can change without altering the core purpose and identity of the organisation.

The module guide suggests that systems thinkers need to understand whether they’re trying to change the organisation or the structure (and whether it’s structure or organisation that is getting in the way of change). For me, this is really interesting, as ‘organisational structure’ usually conflates these two aspects.

New leadership in a company or institution with a hierarchical approach usually leads to changes in structure, when actually perhaps what they need is a change in organisation. Lots to think about here.

A Community Alignment model

TL;DR: I’m working on creating a Community Alignment model (name TBC) that sets out some of the ways I’ve had success working with diverse stakeholders to ship meaningful things. I’ve started work on this on my wiki here.

Just as my continuum of ambiguity is a fundamental part of how I approach life, so I’ve got a default way of working with communities. I’m working with City & Guilds at the moment and realised that it’s actually quite difficult to articulate something I take for granted.

As a result, I’ve started working on a guide to an approach that I’ve found useful for some kinds of initiative. It’s particularly useful if the end product isn’t nailed-down, and if the community is fairly diverse.

I’ve taken a couple of hours today to write the initial text and draft some diagrams for what I’m initially calling a Community Alignment model. Your feedback would be so valuable around this – particularly if you’ve been part of any projects with me recently, or have expertise in the area.

Click here to view the draft guide on my wiki

Thanks in advance for your help! 🙂

Image CC BY-NC Pulpolux !!!

Reflecting on yesterday’s Purpos/ed Summit for Instigators (#purposedpsi)

Doug Belshaw at #purposedpsiIf you take away my wedding day, the birth of my two children and that time in 1998 when my football team beat local rivals to win 4-0 in the cup final replay, yesterday was one of the best days of my life.

Why? It marked a turning point, really. Up until my 30th year, I’ve seen myself as an ‘ideas person’, as somebody who sparks things off. The trouble is, most of the rest of the people in the world see themselves in that vein. So things never get started or are left unfinished. It’s time to be the change I want to see in the world – from start to finish.

Yesterday I helped organise the Purpos/ed Summit for Instigators. It’s the first time I’ve organised an event and, from the feedback both at the event and online, it went very well.

Over 50 people gave up a sunny Saturday afternoon to come and debate the purpose(s) of education as well as planning how to open out the conversation. They were absolutely awesome and I’m looking forward to what they go away and do as a result. It’s the first of many events!

I’m indebted to my co-kickstarter Andy Stewart for being utterly dependable, to Josie Fraser for chairing the event so effortlessly and effectively, and to Steve Boneham for capturing the audio, Leon Cych for sorting out the live video stream, and Maglio Viracca for the photography. Thank you!

If you want to catch some of the archived video stream, head over to our UStream channel (scroll down to ‘Recent Videos’)

Image CC BY-NC-SA Learn4Life