Skip to the short summary section if you are in a hurry.
When designing an organisation, there are several favourable characteristics to keep in mind. Firstly, it is important that an organisation is “viable”, that is, it should be able to persist through time and circumstance by reproducing itself, while performing its intended function. An organisation should further be scalable, and should also provide favourable conditions for members.
Those familiar will immediately recognise that the following layout is largely based on the model described by Stafford Beer, the management cybernetician probably most well known for efficiently organising Chile’s entire economy during the Allende presidency. This model is the Viable Systems Model and is inspired by the way the human body and nervous system function. There is of course much more to the VSM than what can be seen here, and those that are interested are encouraged to read more about it. Most importantly, it encourages thinking in terms of interacting systems and networks, and the flow of information.
In the above design there are 5 main components (the “systems”), each with a specific responsibility. Firstly, it should be noted that the interaction of these systems should not be hierarchical (at least in the sense of “power over”): the characteristics of the responsibilities of the systems should in fact encourage autonomous behaviour of the various parts. Secondly, the systems should not be viewed as organisational “levels” with people occupying specific “jobs” in the levels. Humans are distributed throughout the entire system on a voluntary and, for specific positions, elected basis. Every member of the organisation thus operates as a part of every system depending on their current action. It is thus perhaps easier to think of the systems as “modes” of organising, with every system necessitating a certain outlook and types of tasks. Certain tasks are just best performed when occupied by specific individuals for longer amounts of time (a “term of office”, if you will).
System 1 consists of the parts of the organisation that fulfills the organisation’s purpose or mission, they are the reason the organisation exists. (The organisation does not exist in order to send emails, file paperwork, etc.) All the other systems can be referred to as “metasystems”, since their purpose is to enable System 1 in its operation. System 1 consists of several teams with different sub-purposes.
System 2 serves to coordinate and facilitate the actions of System 1 teams. Every team will have a representative in System 2 who will facilitate communication and coordinate with other System 1 teams. This system balances resources and solves possible conflicts between teams. System 3 observes Systems 1 and 2, looks for possible optimisations and communicates these with System 2 to enact.
System 4 manages the organisation like a steersman1 steers a ship: it looks ahead at the environment and plans the actions of the organisation according to its mission and what is observed in the environment. The organisation’s foundational principles, values, etc. (together with the people who decide these) form System 5.
Turning on x-ray mode, we see that each system can have subsystems that (roughly) follow the same layout as the entire organisation (the 5 systems). It is mostly unnecessary to think in these terms explicitly while the subsystems are only composed of a few people. Just like systems can contain subsystems, the entire organisation can be encapsulated in a system of a larger organisation if, for example, it were to join a federation.
From a larger organisational standpoint, the goings-on of subsystems are not relevant. It is only when something goes wrong (or looks like it might) that the larger system becomes concerned. This would be, for example, when a part of the organisation contravenes a core principle, or is extremely ineffective for a period of time. As such, subsystems can be created and ended on an ad hoc basis, as long as everything is in line with core principles and the larger system produces the results it is responsible for. This is an effective strategy to ensure freedom (autonomy) and to counteract tendencies to micromanage.
In order for this to be successful, each subsystem / team needs to have (given / specify / negotiate) indicators of its operation, and associated boundaries. The indicators can be monitored and intervention can take place when they cross a boundary.
Any part of the proposed organisation can be changed with sufficient democratic force. The following is a suggested starting point.
In the case of SDS, the subsystems of System 1 will be broadly categorised under Theory, Praxis, and Admin.
System 2 will consist of a representative of each System 1 team, selected by the members of each team among themselves via consensus or election. System 3 will divide the monitoring and optimisation responsibilities, allocating them to positions focusing on System 1 & 2, and Administration.
System 4 will have positions dedicated to managing the Theory and Praxis subsystems of System 1, as well as an Admin position which will manage the System 1 Admin team and all other administrative responsibilities such as organisational communication and note- or minute-taking. The principles and values of System 5 will be decided by all members, and can be changed by the same process.
Creation of teams and subsystems
As previously mentioned, teams and subsystems are created ad hoc. To ensure that they operate within the mission and values or the whole organisation, they have to specify their purpose, as well as which indicators (metrics) can be used to monitor how well it is doing in fulfilling its purpose. These indicators must also have specified bounds of normal / acceptable operation; when the indicator metrics move outside of these bounds, the subsystem agrees to relinquish its autonomy and subject itself to management by upper-level systems.
It is encouraged that subsystems think of their operation in terms of the 5 systems of the entire organisation. The previous paragraph’s description of purpose etc. would form the subsystem’s System 5. This is probably completely unnecessary when a subsystem or team only consists of a few people.
The elected positions in Systems 3 and 4 can instantiate teams to fulfill their responsibilities. As the organisation grows, this is encouraged so that work is fairly spread and to encourage a diversity of perspectives.
Transparency and accountability
All communication throughout the organisation must happen in an open fashion. Meetings or minutes of previous meetings held by individuals in elected positions must be open for attendance or access by any member.
Individuals in representative (System 2) and elected positions (System 3 & 4) are immediately recallable as soon as the mechanism that put them in the position reverses (i.e., in the case of consensus: as soon as consensus is broken; in the case of election: if an election votes them out).
Communication can happen in any accessible manner. This could mean via Whatsapp groups or via Discord. Something like Discord or Slack, etc., would be more ideal since interactions in the same group of people can easily be organised into different channels, which can be used for different systems and subsystems.
Full diagram and short summary
We can visualise all the aforementioned information like so:
The numbered blocks are systems: they signify a certain mode of operating in the organisation, that is, what actions are being done. They are not hierarchical levels: humans are all throughout the network and can move around and occupy multiple functions simultaneously or variably, on a voluntary basis. Certain positions are elected so that they can sufficiently democratically represent the will of the members and to ensure stability. The elected positions are those in System 4: Management and 3: Optimisation, as well as the representatives of System 1: Operation teams in System 2: Coordination. Those in the elected positions cannot also be in those positions noted on the connecting lines to prevent conflict of interest and to encourage diversity of interaction.
The purpose of each system is listed underneath the labels in the first diagram of this page. Most importantly is System 1, which enacts the purpose of the organisation; the rest is there to enable the continued function of System 1. Each system has a subsystem to divide its responsibilities into manageable pieces. System 5 consists of the abstract principles and mission of the organisation which are decided by everyone, by consensus or by vote.
The lines are where the systems interact, and the circles are where the systems interact with or observe the external world.
The point of this organisational structure is autonomy, flexibility, horizontalism, and radical democracy — everyone in the organisation has a say over what the organisation is. Our values and principles are growing and changing by the day. In order to viably survive, we must work together, always growing and adapting.
The word for “cybernetics” comes from the ancient Greek “kubernetes”, meaning “steersman”. ↩︎