I really enjoyed reading Alex’s recent post on Foulab. It got me thinking of how similar our relationship to technology is to our relationship to organizations. So much of our waking energy flows through and around organizations, yet we rarely take time to really understand how they work and to empower ourselves to tinker with them if they break down or are no longer feeling useful or joyful to us in their current form.
When I think back on the restructuring process I experienced at COCo, it was as if we approached the whole organization like we would a giant motherboard of a strange machine. We started by pulling all the pieces apart (the various tasks, roles, systems and processes that made it run), laid them out on the floor for all to see, poked and prodded to better understand them, and then rearranged them to create many new combinations. For example, we decided to get rid of (i.e., “repurpose”) the executive director role. We asked ourselves, “What is an ED exactly, and how does it work?” We played with its different elements like liaising with the board of directors, interfacing with funders, coordinating communication among projects, financial review and planning, etc. We then reconfigured those elements by integrating them into existing roles or creating new ones.
We did similar repurposing work with many other roles and functions of the organization. The result helped us to live out our values of shared leadership and organizational democracy more fully, but in a way it was the process of repurposing itself that made it possible for us to really experience shared leadership and organizational democracy. By working together to alter, re-create, and adapting things to our own needs, our functioning as an organization was demystified and we were able to take greater collective ownership of the structure that framed our daily work lives.
I love the spirit behind Foulab. And in a way, re-wiring your executive director role is not much different than trying to figure out how to use parts from your old cell phone to control your washing machine. It takes curiosity, persistence, a touch of naïveté, and maybe some courage.
Most of us aren’t use to this sort of crackpot inventing. At COCo, we felt a lot of anxiety around the experience at first. Everything seemed so complicated. We lacked expertise. And we were all used to organizations working a certain way. So, like good hackers, we made lots of mistakes. We broke stuff. Things that used to work stopped working. Relationships frayed. Because we were new to this kind of repurposing, it was a stressful time for us. Looking back. I wonder if we could have approached things with more of the spirit of fun and play that Foulab seems to have.
Having left COCo recently, my biggest hope is that as new people come into the organization, they continue to feel this spirit of repurposing and feel empowered to mold and re-shape the organization in a way that makes sense to them. We can remake anything if we are curious enough and patient enough. We don’t need to be experts at the beginning. We can grow our expertise by doing and playing and inventing together. We can approach our work in the spirit of Foulab, simply by asking ourselves: “What does this do? I wonder what would happen if I cut it open or spliced it to that? I wonder what else this thing might be?”