How we come together to connect, learn and get things done together is a fundamental part of human activity. These activities are at the heart of how we change and involve how we think, relate and ultimately act together. While these activities weave into both our ordinary everyday experiences they also shape the patterns we create together in our social systems. However, they are not always given the intention and continuous attention they need in change making work as they shape how we make decisions while making policies, determining where resources flow and figuring out who does what.
Some people may define these activities as “governance” which I define as “the forms, structures and social processes that people and institutions use to create and shape their collective activities”. Furthermore there is more nuance and depth to these activities, as We Govern illustrates in their definition of governance: “The process by which people determine the norms and rules that guide people’s everyday life and behaviour. This includes:
• how we choose to live together,
• how we choose to recognize and uphold each other’s well-being and freedom,
• how we choose to use our resources together,
• how we choose to build systems and structures that reflect our shared values, and
• how we choose to care for the land, which provides us with everything we need.
Paying attention to how we organise is essential, as Jo Freeman states in her essay Tyranny of Structurelessness, “structurelessness in groups does not exist”. If you refuse to define structures, informal ones will emerge almost instantly. Not expressing these can be extremely harmful to your organisation and change efforts.
Luckily, there is a swell of organisations globally that are calling for governance approaches that reflect the systemic principles that are suited for the complex adaptive systems we are embedded in. They are applying these principles to how they organise around their vision and values through organisational structures and processes – all the way from how they do recruitment to how they create transparent co-budgeting systems during financial planning processes.
This is in response to many of our inherited dominant forms of governance that are about command and control and have been designed for a complicated (e.g., a machine), not complex world (e.g., a living organism). As a consequence, many traditional forms of how we organise through our governance models are perpetuating the structures, dynamics and patterns organisations are trying to shift. For example, many organisations take centralised or hierarchical decision-making approaches even though we want to enable greater ownership over a project, which if approached differently can come to be through taking advice-based decision-making methods where those closest to the challenge are part of the process.
The wave of organisations that are attempting to invite in a new paradigm by transforming our patterns of organising through systemic governance approaches are working to enable self-organisation via autonomy and accountability. This can allow groups of people to organise their capacity, time, attention and resources in a way that meets the needs and ability of people in their current context. And ultimately helps us cultivate the emergent practices (that enable new system patterns) that support us towards regenerative and distributive approaches that are in coherence with our living systems and wellbeing.
Where to begin this process of transforming our organising patterns is often the stumbling block. Governance is latent with vague, and often oppressive colonial, underpinnings and means different things to people depending on their role and context. So often it can feel fixed and therefore people and organisations get stuck in the dominant paradigm, unable to begin shaping the patterns they desire.
Through a systemic governance inquiry process over the past few years held by The School of System Change and Forum for the Future, we’ve found that governance is in fact made up of a whole spectrum of elements, which while distinct, together create the unique governance context you might find yourself within, be that in an organisation, a movement, a collaborative endeavour, a community or really any place where people come together to organise something.
To support our understanding of governance and how we might transform our patterns of organising, it is helpful to think about governance as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ elements that can often feel in tension with one another, although they are interdependent. Some of these elements may be visible and explicit while others are invisible and implicit. This all depends on people’s context, nature of their work and experience of organising. For example, a “hard” element such as finance might actually be very hidden in an organisation without financial transparency or a “soft” element such as communication and transparency might be experienced overtly as lacking and be a visible gap in ways of working.
Some of the hard elements of governance that are useful to notice might be: funding models, boards, budgeting, organisational structures, policies. While some of the soft elements can be seen through: relationships and learning, nature of meetings, how we give and receive feedback, power dynamics, decision making and conflict practices. What is important is that we are paying attention to this wide range of governance dimensions in our organising efforts and not pinging governance as an either/or or simple process.
As a starting point, we might think about how we can begin innovating on the hard and visible elements of governance that so often get primacy. These structural components often feel easier to figure out with a clear problem and proposed solution. We often inherit ‘best practices’ here that often take the form of complicated compliance protocols. While working to transform our organising patterns there is opportunity to take these harder governance elements and explore how the constraints we are so often bounded by can be disturbed and reshaped. For example, exploring how we budget. While working with these harder elements (which might be seen as the ‘what’ in how we organise) we might explore how they can be a transitionary approach and trojan horse for prioritising the soft stuff (e.g., the how we come together and organise).
The “soft” elements of governance are often the implicit less formal cultural components of how people relate and organise. It’s often less tangible and thus harder to shift. The practice of transforming our organising patterns is a constant practice of probing, sensing and responding to the dynamic nature of these elements in changing contexts. Too often these elements are submerged and therefore if we want to develop resilient adaptable governance approaches, we need to bring to the surface and make explicit the soft cultural elements. While these elements are often deprioritised as they are unseen, they are still aspects of governance that materially impact the lived experience of people working within different organising forms.
With this said, it can be difficult to work with these softer issues in our teams, organisations and collaborations. Questioning, challenging and reconfiguring established relationships is hard. It can take challenging conversations and processes to bring in different perspectives and overcome unhealthy power dynamics. Bringing self-awareness, paying attention to relational dynamics, creating space to listen and honestly share and transparent communications are the starting points. The nature and quality of our ways of being together and relationships is foundational to any governance approach.
So how might we reframe governance as a journey? It is not just about putting the structures and processes in place and then trusting the rest will follow as how we organise is not a fixed or static thing you set up on a one-off basis. In fact, governance and how we organise is a living process that we need to embrace will be messy.
As noted at the start of this, governance is too often an overlooked intervention or area of leverage for how we can create change. How might we start paying attention to our own internal patterns of organising as a prefigurative microcosm for the change we wish to have in the world? Not seeing these as separate endeavours. With this, how can you support others to imagine and implement new governance approaches that demonstrate and model how we can operate systemically, as a fractal of the change we are bringing into the world?
- Reimagining governance myths. Andrew, Sean. Armstrong, Louise. Birney, Anna. (2021, July 24).
- The governance flywheel. Andrew, Sean. Armstrong, Louise. Birney, Anna. (2021, September 24).
- Governance Dilemmas – Boundary Conditions for Navigating Networked Peacebuilding. Portela, Pedro. (2023, August 23).
- Liberatory Governance…and belonging. Stout, Brian. (2022, September 2).
- Social innovation From the Inside Out. Nilsson, Warren. Paddock, Tana. (Winter 2022)