Bill Kinnon is entirely to blame, but at least this time it’s not a bad thing. So far he has recommended Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations on his blog a couple of times, and the same to me via email a couple of times, and now on the telephone the other day, he did it again. What could I do? Armed with a $30 gift certificate I’d gotten for my birthday, I headed down to McNally Robinson and paid full price, in person at a bricks-and-mortar retail establishment (remember those?) to nab the last copy on the shelf.
This is one fine book… I only just cracked it open last night and haven’t hit the 50-page mark yet, but listen to this:
If you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them. As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers’ managers. Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management. Organizations have many ways to offset those costs–Microsoft uses revenues, the army uses taxes, the church uses donations–but they cannot avoid them. In a way, every institution lives in a kind of contradiction: it exists to take advantage of group effort, but some of its resources are drained away by directing that effort. Call this the institutional dilemma–because an institution expends resources to manage resources, there is a gap between what those institutions are capable of in theory and in practice, and the larger the institution, the greater those costs.
(p.19-20) Oh, but there’s more: “Groups of people are complex, in ways that make those groups hard to form and hard to sustain; much of the shape of traditional institutions is a response to those difficulties.” (p.25) He goes on to outline the “Birthday Paradox” to illustrate that the number of connections increases exponentially with group size. Think Metcalf’s Law and you’ll grok. Given my background in and around software projects, I loved when he quotes Erik Raymond and later mentions (p.29) Fred Brooks’ classic, The Mythical Man-Month, in which Brooks asserts that adding more people to a late project tends to make it later due to the increased burden of coordinating the group. Realize that “transaction costs” are simply the overhead of carrying on the everyday business of the organization, whether it’s measured in hard dollars or in the softer productivity losses of stopping to read more email directives and progress reports, and get this:
Running an organization is difficult in and of itself, no matter what its goals. Every transaction it undertakes–every contract, every agreement, every meeting–requires it to expend some limited resource: time, attention, or money. Because of these transaction costs, some sources of value are too costly to take advantage of. As a result, no institution can put all its energies into pursuing its mission; it must expend considerable effort on maintaining discipline and structure, simply to keep itself viable. Self-preservation of the institution becomes job number one, while its stated goal is relegated to number two or lower, no matter what the mission statement says. The problems inherent in managing these transaction costs are one of the basic constraints shaping institutions of all kinds.
(p.29-30) He goes on to say that “because the minimum costs of being an organization in the first place are relatively high, certain activities may have some value but not enough to make them worth pursuing in any organized way.” (p.31)
Wow. Thanks, Bill.
So now I’m thinking not only about Bob Metcalf, Eric Raymond, and Fred Brooks, I’m also thinking about The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations and about Robin Dunbar and when I talked about The Rule of 150 & The Mission of the Church, and about the chapter I wrote for Wikiklesia’s Voices of the Virtual World. And I think I’ve been right all along. Way back before I boarded this particular blogtrain, I was struck by something in David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web and I wrote The Beauty of Broken Systems: An Appeal for a Measure of Anarchy in the Church, because it turns out there’s nothing wrong with intentional chaotic brokenness as a design feature. When you’re right, you’re right… just don’t expect anyone in the institution to affirm the fact, as I discovered to my chagrin.
I’m also thinking that “giving a cup of water” is too small an act for an organization to be bothered with… if they’re going to bother, they need to give away 500-1,000 bottles of water so that the impact better befits their size… which actually has no impact upon who is and isn’t thirsty at the time. An organization of any significant size will be less interested in the individual and more interested in the group they represent. I just can’t imagine Jesus saying to someone that approached him, “You’re a Jew, right? Where are the rest of you? Gather them all together so I won’t have to go over this more than once, it’ll be more efficient that way.” The church doesn’t visit an inmate, it starts a prison ministry.
Then too, I’m wondering why transaction costs are a concern for people wondering whether they should give money to organizations like World Vision or Compassion International, but they write cheques to the local church with nary a second thought along these lines. The Megachurches keep saying “bigger is better” because it’s more efficient, but is it? I don’t think so. I think the transaction costs rob the church of its mission. Realize that the organization of the church is now shaped foremost by its size and not by its mission, and ask yourself if that’s in any way appropriate.