Organizational boundary problems: too many cooks or not enough kitchens?

Three chefs working together in a modern restaurant kitchen, with another two chefs working at a different station in the background.
Inside Noma, an open kitchen which supports exceptional teamwork. Image credit: City Foodsters, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re lucky, you’ve worked in a job with respectful people who share information openly and habitually bring different perspectives together for big decisions (if you haven’t, yes these do exist!). I’ve been a part of several open work cultures, and it’s been good for me. Working where people are actively pulling towards transparency, inclusivity, and empowerment, on problems that matter, is hugely satisfying.

Open cultures can have a dark side too, though. Openness doesn’t come for free, and without structure to enable participation, a culture that calls itself “open” can easily evolve to increase the feelings of exclusion it was trying to avoid.

I’ve seen this play out in different contexts, so I’m writing this post to:

Successful open spaces tend to expand…

Open cultures are characterized by making information widely available, far beyond a “need to know” circle, and inviting broad participation in decision-making. It is an appealing philosophy, which promises to let everyone bring their expertise to the places it is valuable to the org and satisfying for individuals.

There was a time when, if I’d had to guess at open cultures’ biggest vulnerability, I’d have assumed that it would be bad actors. In the cases I’ve been lucky(?) enough to witness, though, this is not the case. The decline of openness is rooted in the openness itself — in individuals’ tendency to get lightly involved in too many things. For folks on the ground, it can feel frustrating that there are so many cooks in the kitchen, and yet nobody seems to be responsible or empowered to get the meal on the table.

See if you recognize this pattern:

A space that once promoted trust now diminishes it, but you can see the benign intent. As the original team, why wouldn’t you want to tap into expertise from across the organization? And as someone outside the team, in the absence of well-packaged information, why wouldn’t you turn up and get news you might need?

In open cultures, this pattern might be expressed in meetings, e-mail chains, messaging channels, shared artifacts, task forces, major decisions, you name it. From top to bottom, it feels hard to get anything done. Input sessions trigger reactions and responses, which themselves are subject of further back-and-forth. Things take a long time, because all priorities now compete with each other, serialized in people who each have a small piece of them.

… and then the work closes off

When spaces get too big, the energy of the org finds expression in smaller informal teams. Groups band together to get something done despite the organizational inertia, and out of necessity they put up new walls. When this is done piecemeal, though, or without intentionality, it leaves some people cut off from decisions that significantly affect them. Somehow an in-crowd has locked the doors with them on the outside.

Decisions may dribble out without being attached to anyone at all (“it was decided…”), obfuscating essential context like intent, what input was considered, and intended durability. In my experience, these things really matter; people and teams are far less effective and more stressed when they feel unconfident about the organizational landscape and constraints. Being kept out of decisions can also really get in under some people’s professional defenses, straight into deep human fears of exclusion and loss of (already-scant) agency.

The in-group can find it frustrating as out-group people guess at the ways of getting things done, often actively misled by the formal structure. Outsiders may experience personal repercussions both from their “inappropriate” engagement attempts and from their ineffectiveness because they lack agency over decisions that affect their work. Insiders for one set of decisions may also be outsiders for other decisions, so universally across the org, people are beset by surprise after surprise, kept constantly off-balance.

The organization is now firmly in the world of dysfunctions explored so brilliantly in Jo Freeman’s timeless essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Although written about the women’s liberation movement in the ’60s, it resonates hard for open cultures of today. Freeman makes a compelling case for “the inevitably elitist and exclusive nature of informal communication networks.” It gives a ray of hope, though, advocating for the benefits of formal decision-making structures. Structure always exists, so making it explicit and intentional is the foundation for effective, inclusive teams.

A personal perspective

I’ve been on both sides of that locked door, sometimes out-crowd, sometimes in-crowd in various organizations at various stages of maturity about open culture (yes, I’m being intentionally vague, no this is not secretly about any one organization). From the inside, it’s hard to see that exclusion is even happening. You feel like you’re making progress, and other people just need to give you a minute to figure some things out. Outside can be awful, though, like a nightmare of banging on a window, knowing you need to be inside, but nobody will even look up to see you.

This goes far beyond just effectiveness for the organization. I have seen how the lack of externalized structure can cause deep harm to the people. That banging-on-a-window-feeling is a fast-track to burnout, as people try to engage in swirling, energy-sucking environments which seem to close them out the more they try to engage. Its disadvantages fall disproportionately on the already-marginalized, allowing gaslighting and other epistemic injustices. It may be experienced as workplace trauma, with effects that persist long after the situation has resolved.

At this moment there are parts of US civic technology, generally skeptical of structure and scale, reckoning now with varying degrees of formal and informal structure mismatch. It’s a tired community anyway, but fragmentation and misalignment are extra frustrating at a time when funding has unfrozen and there’s a sense of once-in-a-generation opportunity. These organizations suffer from having grafted holacracy onto bureaucracy, and it’s hardly surprising that team skills just haven’t been high on the priority list.

Civic tech is a community where facilitation practices and design are strong, though, so it’s relatively easy to make a case for thoughtful organizational design. It’s a natural extension of design philosophy that well-designed team structures can unlock coherent work at larger scales.

Organizational design is design

It’s common to try to solve the “too many cooks” problem by shrinking decision-making groups and clarifying responsibilities, RACI-style. A better way to think about it, though, is not as getting excess cooks out of the kitchen, but as designing the kitchens — or stations in a commercial kitchen — for the cooks to be effective and safe. Safe is obvious, but “effective” in a restaurant means high-quality delivery both at the individual dish level and also of whole meals. It’s all about putting in the work to build healthy single team environments and being intentional about how the different parts relate to each other for their common purpose.

Good team practices are not the only thing that open cultures need when they’re struggling; they are necessary but not sufficient. In particular, I’ve glossed right over the intense communication work that goes into making an org feel “transparent.” Despite the importance of team practices to sustainable work environments, though, it’s still relatively common for tech to hold a pre-70s-feminist assumption that structure is oppression.

If you, or an organization you are in, are discovering the enabling benefits of structure, here are my current favorite resources on teams and how teams should relate to each other:

Key concepts for teams

Two-pizza teams and single-threaded leaders Although an organizational model needs to be grown not grafted, constraints and guardrails can be useful as-is from other orgs. Amazon’s framing speaks to such common challenges, these are great candidates for enabling constraints.

Healthy teams, from Project Aristotle There was a ton of insightful research that came out of this project, but ultimately my favorite part is the new pyramid of team health factors, built on a bedrock of psychological safety.

Dynamic Reteaming Forget storming and norming, Heidi Helfand’s approach is so much more useful and nuanced. Dynamic Reteaming recognizes that a successful long-term team changes frequently, so it is essential to embrace cast-changes, while retaining the through-line of the team essence.

Key concepts for how teams relate to each other

Team Topologies A timely, actionable book that I know is resonating with a lot of leaders trying to create explicit team structures. It treats “how do teams relate to each other” as a first-class subject, and it gives good guidelines on aligning formal structure to the value the org creates. Although slanted towards private-sector teams developing software, there is nothing in the methods that limit them to that case.

Technical Leadership Masterclass (ebook by Ruth Malan) If you tend towards the more theoretical, this book gives a comprehensive introduction to a vast number of the big ideas in this space. It has become a focal point for a thriving community of sociotechnical thinkers.

Additional articles that are either mentioned in this post or directly influenced it

The Tyranny of Structurelessness (essay by Jo Freeman)

Epistemic Injustice (book by Miranda Fricker)

Hierarchy is not not the problem… (blog post by Richard Bartlett, one of many good resources on the Decolonizing Decisions reading list from Tina Ye and Cordelia Yu)

Beyond the Holacracy Hype (HBR article Ethan Bernstein, John Bunch, Niko Canner, and Michael Y. Lee)

Autopsy of a Failed Holacracy: Lessons in Justice, Equity, and Self-Management (blog post by Simon Mont)

In conclusion…

It’s really easy for people to turn on each other when they’re struggling, rather than focus attention on the structures that are enabling the harm. I’d like to acknowledge the really hard work and personal cost to collaborate on better systems ahead of the trust people may feel for each other. This post is a statement of optimism, though, that where individuals share a sense of mission and commitment to restorative action, that is enough to start building systems of collaboration that can turn a work culture around.

Special thanks to Mark Headd, Nikki Lee, and Ed Mullen, who gave input and feedback that made this post a deeper learning experience than I could ever have hoped when I started. This account is also presented with apologies to anyone I have harmed through the mechanisms it describes.



Making software systems more humane, sustainable, and intentional. Infatuated by the possibilities of bringing product thinking to #govtech.

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Elizabeth Ayer

Making software systems more humane, sustainable, and intentional. Infatuated by the possibilities of bringing product thinking to #govtech.