Everyone is on my team

A new way to think about organisation.

If you want to work with other people and for it to work well, don’t start an organisation.

If you want to work with other people and for it to work well — make clear deals.

If you make a clear deal with someone you work with:

- It makes it harder to get lost in conflict.
- It makes it harder to do the wrong thing.
- It makes it harder to lose touch with each other’s intentions.

- It makes it easier to agree on things.
- It makes it easier to build on each other’s capacity.
- It makes it easier to make the most of what you and they have to offer.

(You can read more about clear deals here.)

But, perhaps more importantly than that, making clear deals may give you an entirely new model for thinking about how we all work together.

Because — and here’s the kicker — thinking about ‘organisations’ is, I believe, inherently an obstacle to clarity.

Organisations are never clear…

The easiest way to think about this (and I hate to use Facebook as an example) is to think about Facebook friends. If you thought about organising a group of your friends, you would never think of organising them the way Facebook organises them. If I were to start a club or a group or something, my mental model would be that a ‘club’ is like a kind of big pot that I can put things in. Or it’s a building that I can invite people into. It’s my building. I invite you in. And then you’re either in my building or not my building. It’s my building, I have a list of everyone in the building, I’m in charge of the building. That’s it. If anyone asks whose building it is — it’s mine. We’re all in the same club. My club. And you can’t be in two buildings at once. That would be crazy.

But then think about Facebook friends. If I look at my list of Facebook friends, it feels like it’s a big club that we’re all in. Hey! Look! It’s my club and there’s how ever many hundred of us. But that club only actually exists from my perspective. From my perspective, I have a club and you’re in it. You’re one among hundreds on my list of friends. From your perspective, though, you have a club and I’m in it. I’m one of hundreds on your list of friends. On Facebook, we each feel like everything revolves around us. And, from our perspective, everything does revolve around us. But that’s true for everyone. So, it can feel like there are hundreds of people in my club. But, really, it’s a club made just for me and I’m, kind of, the only person in it. I see a ‘world’ through my newsfeed — but that world only exists for me. No one has the same newsfeed as me. No one else shares my experience of that world.

Within the context of Facebook (or any equivalent social platform online) this paradigm feels totally natural. But when people think and talk about organisations, they don’t talk about imaginary overlapping worlds of friendship seen through different perspectives. They think and talk about a big pot and you are either in or out. And if it’s my big pot, my building, then I’m in charge. And this view skews everything.

If I think about friends on Facebook, I think I am part of your friendship group and you are part of mine. (Also, obviously, that’s true just thinking about normal actual friendship in the world too.) But if I think about organisations in the normal way, does it follow that if I am in your organisation, then you are in mine? That’s certainly not how people talk about it. Because we think of organisations like a big pot or a building that you step into. But it should be how we talk about it. Because — actually — working with other people is a social thing. And it follows the same principles as friendship and friendship groups.

When I talk about clear ideas and clear deals with people who don’t work in organisations, it’s a lot easier. Because, outside of a strange concocted story of organisations-as-big-pots, everyone naturally knows how people work together. We have people we call on as friends. We have people who call on us as friends. We have people we call on for help. We have people who call on us for help.

Think of how collaborators work together in a city. Let’s say you have two people — Carol and Richard — and each has, let’s say, a dozen people they call on for help, more or less frequently. And some of those people help both Carol and Richard. And Carol and Richard also help some of those people. And Carol also works with people who don’t live in the city. Whatever. You get the idea. Each person could write a list of the people who they work with, and everyone would have a different list. Some people would show up multiple times. And there is not ‘an organisation’. And if you tried to impose one — if you tried to look at what’s happening by putting them all in a big pot, you would fundamentally misunderstand how working together works. There is no big pot.

The idea that saying ‘I work for Coke’ accurately represents how you work with other people is just weird. It’s like being in that city of collaborators and saying ‘I work for Carol’. It doesn’t really tell you anything. Somehow, talking about organisations as things leads to people eliding their own identity. People start thinking of themselves — defining themselves — in relation to someone else’s work — rather than actually talking about what their own work is and why they’re doing it. And they do that so wholeheartedly that their own work kind of disappears…

No. The way to be clear about how we work together is to stop talking about organisations. Stop thinking about an organisation with a head honcho at the top and progressively less important people slotting in underneath them — defined by their ‘rank’. We have to re-apply the mental model we use for how friendship works to how organisation works. Where each person has their work. And — from their point of view — they have a set of people helping them.

Stories of ‘I work for Coke’ or ‘I work for Microsoft’ or whoever just add a layer of unreality, a layer of fog, that stands in the way of meaningful collaboration. Meaningful collaboration starts with saying, ‘This is what I am doing.’ And then finding out what the person in front of you is doing. And then asking for or offering help. And then making a clear deal.

Every person has their own life’s work. Every person has helpers. Where our life’s work overlaps with someone else’s, then we work together. By working together, we each become helpers in each other’s life, in each other’s work. And, if we do that clearly, then our life’s work gets easier — for all of us.

In as far as ‘organisations’ — or at least the act of getting people organised — helps us to work in that way, then they are priceless. In as far as they get in the way of that — they should be abandoned.