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Think, Decide, Act: a case for a little organisational anarchy

Think, Decide, Act: a case for a little organisational anarchy - a blog about collaboration

This is the first of a series of blogs about the leadership of collaboration by Steve Carter, Apter Development LLP. Apter Development is an award winning International Leadership Consultancy

There is much discussion about collaboration at the moment – most companies are recognising the need to ensure the potential inherent in the wisdom and experience of talented people is not locked away within silos and furrows of organisation design and culture. For over 10 years organisations such as McKinsey and HBR have been producing evidence of the value of more effective collaboration across number of dimensions including: revenue generation, cross selling, productivity, resource allocation etc. This short blog explores how we might employ centuries old pirate organisational design to achieve better levels of collaboration.

What is True Collaboration?
It might be surprising but there are some interesting lessons from piratical anarchist communities about how modern organisations could function better in respect of collaboration.

Collaboration is so much more than just about people talking to each other - though it’s a start! It is what happens when they do talk together that makes or breaks the value case for collaboration. And what happens also differentiates collaboration from related concepts such as cooperation and coordination. Collaboration is fundamentally about: thinking together, deciding together and acting together, something pirates were good at doing on a global basis.  Most times people nowadays come together - for meetings, briefings, project reviews, negotiations etc. - this is NOT what really happens. More typically groups meet to review, or be sold, some thinking that has already taken place. They usually have to refer or recommend to others outside the group for decision making often resulting in commitment to follow up action that is often patchy to say the least.

Spontaneous Organisation
Collaboration is not the same as teamwork and nor is team work a good example of it. Good team working is more about predefined groups of people being formally brought together to work on an agreed problem with roles assigned and usually specific outcomes identified through a plan or strategy. Collaboration is something that happens outside and across teams and is often driven by the unforeseen or unexpected identification of a problem or opportunity. It is this ‘self-determining’ quality that fosters spontaneous organisation that perhaps most characterises collaboration. Collaboration works when people from a broad network of people create a temporary structure or group aimed at responding to the opportunities or threats in a rapidly changing environment. It is therefore something which often needs to emerge from the flow of work rather than be imposed upon it.

The Challenge of Volatility
The idea that people should be able to create self-determining teams can seem a little dangerous, almost anarchic to some organisations, but could it be essential in what has come to be called a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment. In this environment leadership and organisation is required that enables organisations to deal with rapidly evolving situations in which quite often the detail of a plan and what needs to happen cannot be anticipated and challenges are one off, unique and demanding a rapid response. This is an environment in which highly effective problem solving, innovation and improvisation needs to occur.

In these situations what is required for effective collaboration is something anarchists call 'temporary autonomous zones’. Originally identified by Hakim Bey, an anarchist pseudonym for Peter Rambourne  - the idea is that anarchists could and should 'create temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control'. Self-forming groups could create themselves, potentially on-line, to fulfil some goal and then dissolve when the job is done or the ‘authorities’ get too close. Hakim Bey gives historical precedent for this; the international network of pirates created a surprisingly democratic global information network which supported the exchange of goods, information and access to supplies. Not surprisingly these needed to be transient, self-forming and ‘unofficial’!

Could this happen in modern organisations? It does and it must. It does - because this is how many very successful organisations have always worked, where strong peer relationships underpin how things really get done. It must - because this is the way an organisation can develop the resilience and proactivity that enables them to flourish.

Future blogs will explore the what, how, and when of this challenge in more depth.


  1. Collaboration occurs when a group of people, drawn from a wider network, recognise they have a stake in a common problem. It is therefore a cross-boundary challenge.
  2. If it is to be truly responsive to the challenges of the environment in which it operates, an organisation needs to allow for level of spontaneous organisation, so that those most involved with a threat or opportunity can think, decide and act together.

To what extent is spontaneous organisation necessary and possible in your organisation?



Comments on this Post

Stephen Venables on 9th September 2015

As a mountaineer – and quite frequent contributor to Apter programmes – I do like this talk of anarchy. And Temporary Autonomous Zones. (Although some people might accuse me of being a Permanent Autonomous Zone).

Tracey Skoyles on 17th July 2015

Spontaneous organisation is new to many organisations as a concept and without context and rationale it can be seen as another thing to do on top of a very busy day job. This analogy helps by way of explanation, although selling 'pirate organisational design' may raise a few eyebrows!

Steve Carter on 10th July 2015

Hi All some really interesting comments here. Of course the analogy of anarchy and pirates is deliberately provocative - though it does highlight a core truth than self-forming groups can be very effective. Interesting point about the motor industry MArk - paradoxically they are also somewhat role models for collaboration - wasn't there some tie up between Mazda and Renault around mutual innovation - There are many inhibitors but as John suggests sensible organisations should encourage 'boundary pushing' A future blog will deal with the practicalities of this based on suggestions made during a conversation with a guy who built a cross-boundary collaborative procurement operation .

Mary Wride on 8th July 2015

Steve I like this definition of collaboration and, for me, this is what sets apart the effective leader/key influencer. They make stuff happen by seeking, seeing and joining the dots. M

John Campbell on 6th July 2015

Collaboration can take many forms, even in a regulated environment. I guess it is up to those in those environments to continually push the boundaries as far as possible. A further thought is that far seeing organisations would not see this as anarchy, but ways of creating more value, including intrinsic values and making sure that organisations serve a higher purpose than merely making money. Frederick Laloux in Reinventing Organisations has a lot to offer here.

Mark Grant on 6th July 2015

Cross functional collaboration within a company is increasingly important if it is to optimize the potential from the market. However wider collaboration certainly within in the motor industry is a huge no no, as the Competition & Markets Authority are looking at everything we do. We even have issues discussing our business with our Dealer network. Is over regulation destroying collaboration and therefore slowing business growth and the economy.

Ron Lutaaya on 2nd July 2015

Thanks Steve, I am currently helping to shape the future of a department in an African monarchy, this may validate what we are doing. Essentially melting down some of the heavy protocol that is impeding progress. Temporary autonomous zone gives me ideas.

Steve Marshall on 2nd July 2015

Drawing on piracy and anarchy might not be the starting point for most corporate change programmes, however, this first blog demonstrates how corporate speak can dilute what Collaboration offers as competitive advantage.

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