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June 15, 2016

Be wary of organisations

When the social theorist Leopold Khor observed ‘when something is wrong, something is too big’ he was referring to organisations and the inherent tendency they have just to keep on growing.  It seems to be part of the human condition to want to form organisations – almost before the true purpose for the organisation has been established. But perhaps we need to keep that instinct to form organisations in check a little longer. In fact perhaps we need to become a little more wary of starting organisations at all.


Charles Davies

When you need to get something done and you can’t do it yourself, then you need help.

When you need a lot of help, you need a lot of people.

And when you have a lot of people, then someone is likely to tell you that you need an organisation.

“Be careful, very careful about organisations…Organisations kill work.” — Vanda Scaravelli

When you start out making something, it’s because you have a need. You need somewhere to live, so you start building a house. If you need help, then you get help. And the people who agree to help might help until the house is built. Then, when the house is built, it’s over.

But when there are a lot of people involved, someone may say it’s time to start an organisation.

You’ll need a name for it. And a legal structure. And maybe a branding agency to help you work out what the identity of the organisation is. Then you’ll need people to take responsibility for different parts of the organisation. And you’ll have to divide your time between building the organisation and building the house.

At a certain point, someone might say you need to work out what the purpose of the organisation is. And you might have to ask everyone involved what they think it is. And people will start talking about ‘working for the organisation’.

But when you start talking about the organisation as a thing, you’ve created a phantom.

When you start talking about the organisation as having a purpose of its own, you’ve created a phantom.

When you start talking about the organisation having an identity of its own, you’ve created a phantom.

When you start talking about ‘working for this or that organisation’, you’re talking about working for a phantom.

Because in the first place there was just a person with a need. A real, live need. A need that could be met. A person who needed help and asked for help. Where the help was directed at meeting that need. Directly. And progress was measured by whether the need was met yet. And when the need was met, it was over.

But when you start talking about organisations as things — with purpose and identity and the rest — then the original need can find itself competing with a phantom. People start doing things ‘for the sake of the organisation’. People start investing in the idea that it’s a good thing that the organisation survives. If you’re helping the person who needs a house built, then it’s clear who you’re helping. And it’s clear what the need is and where it came from. If you’re helping ‘the organisation’, though, then it’s not clear who you are helping. And it’s not clear what the need is and it’s not clear where it came from. Because ‘helping the organisation’ is a meaningless phrase.

It’s easy to be tempted into starting an organisation. ‘But surely you need to start an organisation if things are complicated. Surely you need to start an organisation if lots of people are involved. Surely it’s OK to start an organisation, so long as it’s serving the original need — of building a house or whatever it might have been.’

When there are a lot of people involved, when things are complicated, then you may need collaboration. You may need coordination. You may need communication. You may even need to organise things. You may needorganisation. But an organisation?

Take a group of people and tell them there’s an organisation in the room and watch everything get more difficult. What is the point of this organisation? Who gets to decide what is done when? How do I fit into this organisation? The conversation takes on a certain quality: the quality of a crowd of people arguing about something that doesn’t exist as if it does exist. Where there are no right answers. It’s an exercise in fiction. And it’s a way of not doing the work.

Because the organisation doesn’t exist, it is a blank slate. A mirror in which everyone sees what they want to see. An empty page onto which anyone can write their story. It can appear to take on a life of its own, animated by the unconscious desires of those observing it. We end up seeing ourselves in it.

If we look at work through the lens of organisations, we are looking at work through the lens of identity. What is this organisation? Who are we as an organisation? When you talk about organisations, how often do you refer to the need it’s trying to meet? And how often do you just refer to it by name? Nestle. Phillip Morris. Coca Cola. General Motors. The focus ends up on the character, not the work. Colonel Sanders. Ronald McDonald. A whole drama of personalities. We treat organisations as if they are fixed. We talk about them as if they are constant. The names and the corporate faces give the impression of an enduring state. Something to identify with in perpetuity. But this is a sideshow.

The identity obscures the initiative. If a man is building a house and needs help building a house, then the initiative is front and centre. The need is front and centre. And it’s possible to talk about the need directly. Do you want to help meet this need? Are you helping meet this need? Has the need been met yet?

Adding anything to this obscures the need. What shall we call ourselves? What should the logo be? What’s my job title? What kind of organisation is this? What are the prospects for promotion? As soon as we start talking about anorganisation, rather than just organisation, we split our focus in two. Between the work to be done to meet the need of the person who needs help, on the one hand, and the organisation-as-phantom on the other. When we start talking about an organisation, we enter a fictional universe — one step removed from the reality of one person helping another.

When there is not an organisation, there are only people. People who ask for help and people who help.

When there is not an organisation, it forces us to put our focus on what is actually happening. We have to look at personal relationships. We have to look at personal commitments. We have to look at personal responsibility.

When there is not an organisation, we have to look at what people have appetite for. We have to look at how strong the bonds are between people. We have to see what holds people together and what doesn’t.

When there is not an organisation — no corporate song, no compelling brand, no iconic face — then, for want of something else to distract us, we end up focused on the work to be done.


If you want the work to be done, then communicate the vision. Have a vision. Get clear on what the vision is. Articulate the vision. Find people who believe in the vision. Who have the passion required to take the action to realise that vision. Let them bring their passion. Let them take action. Let the vision be realised.

But don’t start an organisation.

“You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.” — Truth is a pathless land, Krishnamurti