An Era of Ferment in Organizing for Creative Work

Photo Credit: Museomix MTL

Photo Credit: Museomix MTL

Technological and social changes are profoundly impacting how we live. Thankfully, smart people everywhere are intentionally and unintentionally adapting to these conditions by organizing in new ways. New species of organizations are popping up that challenge how creative work is understood and how groups of people coordinate to accomplish tasks. We think this a wonderful thing as the dominant design of organizations may not appropriate for the incredible challenges we face – political, social, ecological, technological or otherwise. Mono-cultures are profitable but risky. A diverse creative ecology is a resilient one.

However, our concern is that most or all of these new species will fail to thrive as the conditions are not being created for them to succeed. The Silicon Valley approaches, despite the enthusiastic rhetoric, are too often iterations on an old model. Truly new ways of organizing are hard to spot, and even harder to protect. Ayn Rand with better glasses is just one of many possible solutions.

The Cambrian explosion was a short period of time about 550 million years ago, when most major groupings of animals (phylum) appeared. The period saw the emergence of most of the categories of body shapes for animals with which we are currently familiar. Why this happened is a bit of a mystery, though most explanations look at changes in environmental, developmental, and ecological conditions. The main suspects – increased oxygen levels, exchanges of adaptations across complex organisms, and systemic diversity – were true for a long enough period that new forms could occupy new niches (like land). Future mass extinctions were unable to completely undo this period of intense diversification.

More recently, the idea of ‘corporate’ entities emerged in the 6th century in Rome as a way of describing bodies (corpus) of people committed to some common action. The period saw a proliferation of organizational forms, many of which were founded by the Catholic church as ways of structuring charity and extending the Church’s control within the Roman empire. Modernity is anchored in institutions and some argue that the current form of Western society is an extension (or corruption) of the early Christian church’s efforts. Spiritual and now secular influence allowed for these new institutions to stabilize and extend their reach (for good and for ill).

We’ve worked with a lot of different creative organizations. Some are quite large, with hundreds of employees, and others are very small, consisting of only a passionate team of volunteer members who do the work in the time they can make available. Music, visual arts, video games, advertising, or museums – they have their own language and preferences and outcomes in mind. However, until recently, there has been a remarkable consistency in how creative institutions organized to get work done. There are differences, of course, but these differences are mostly cosmetic. An advertising firm, an African music festival and a contemporary dance ensemble are prone to coordinate in remarkably similar ways. If we had to map out the shape of this organizational animal, we’d see a very small number of people (often one person, often male) directing the creature. We’d see divisions internally to ensure that work was being done efficiently and predictably, and we’d see methods of buffering the animal from its external environment to keep it safe. Human resource functions would buffer between the labour market and the organization as well as standing between general employees and management. Legal departments and functions protect the structure from the courts while marketing or promotion tie the organization to its audiences.

These structural forms and adaptations are so obvious that we can easily take them for granted. However, they are relatively modern inventions and were retained because they were appropriate adaptations for the environments of the time. They came to be dominant designs, because they contained the features best-suited for the objectives of the people involved and the environments with which they interacted.

Utterback and Abernathy first posited the concept of a ‘dominant design’ back in 1975. They argued that over time, the number of technological options available for a particular task will be reduced until a very small number of forms come to dominate. Typewriters (QWERTY), calculators (4-function), and operating systems (Windows) are common examples of this idea in practice.

Tied to this, Anderson and Tushman described a technology cycle where long periods of incremental changes are interrupted by technological discontinuities which creates various rival regimes that compete for technological dominance (a ‘dominant design’). They referred to this period of rival regimes as an ‘era of ferment’.

We tend to think about technologies as tools that are physical and manipulable. When asked, most of us would point to devices or appliances as representing the idea of ‘technology’. However, how we opt to organize is very much a technology, a tool by which we are better able to accomplish collective objectives. The nuclear family, the nation state, and the corporation are all technologies of organizing.

I believe we are entering into an ‘era of ferment’ for creative organizations and I fear that if we don’t work to protect these emerging forms that most or all will die before being reproduced (or even seen by most).

Many will argue that incubators exist to protect these forms. Some day this may be true, but incubators exist to protect and support chickens until they can be eaten. Animals that hatch that aren’t chickens are more cause for concern than celebration. Most incubators are invested in improvements in the current model.

What is needed is a systemic commitment to both creating conditions for new approaches to succeed and some critical reflection on current routines and recursive approaches to understanding the world. This isn’t about replacing what we have, but creating some spaces for different approaches to evolve (just in case). Mammals were around during the time of the dinosaurs, a bit of redundancy for random pieces of celestial intervention.

How this would look in practice is a much broader topic (that we continue to explore) but here are some generalized ideas:

Environmental: Organizations rely on resources, be they public funds, client contracts, or audience dollars, to survive. Not all resources are obvious. Roads are a resource for cars and the gas that goes into them and just as public investment in roads became a subsidy for oil and gas companies, many structural aspects of the creative ecology subsidize legacy models at the expense of innovation. For example, a non-profit arts organization seeking funding is often required to legally incorporate. Incorporation entails significant burdens and risks for members, including compliance around remuneration, board governance, reporting, and administration. Granters had valid reasons for insisting on incorporated status; risk reduction, transparency, and evidence of stability for example. Canada now has one non-profit corporation for every 200 citizens and one charitable organization for every 400. Incorporation no longer serves as a structural obstacle, but rather a price to be paid to participate.

Furthermore, those that do pursue public funds get caught in a cycle of grant writing and reporting that, due to increasing demands on public money, occupies increasing attention of management over time. A perverse cycle emerges whereby the pursuit of resources diminishes the capacity to use those resources effectively. Imagine if the food we ate made us less able to acquire more food going forward (oh wait …).

Developmental: Developmental factors relate to how organizations change over time. Currently, organizations go through stages of mostly predictable adaptations as they grow. A founder-led entrepreneurial venture carves out a successful niche and begins adding people. People are sorted into specialized roles that create value for the organization. The roles tend to address efficiency or contingency and serve to isolate the organization and its management from the outside world. For paid work, contracts structure the relationships. Roles become professionalized to protect the particular value created by particular groups and to thereby make greater claims on the resources of the firm. Engineers, marketers, PR specialists, HR specialists, curators, and designers are all products and contributors to this developmental routine.

Exceptions, while rare, are often remarkable. Big Spaceship is a highly successful digital agency in New York that was founded by a graduate of a film studies program at Vassar. Big Spaceship created online campaigns for big brands and the niche they occupied was new enough that they had room to grow and came to embody a set of beliefs that stand apart from the traditional advertising model. Big Spaceship has no rigid hierarchies and no creative department. They are the exception, however, and resisted acquisition at several points in their history. As most advertising companies are founded by advertising professionals, the expectations and assumptions are hard-wired and create organisms that come to greatly resemble each other. De-emphasizing the professionalization of industries would be a critical contributor to advancing diverse forms.

Ecological: Ecological factors refer to the inter-organizational and intra-system dynamics that define creative work. Competition is the most widely accepted dynamic, even among organizations that exist to create social value rather than profit. The market for creative product is becoming increasingly fragmented, with diverse voices demanding creative products that speak to their lived experiences. Organizations working in entirely distinct niches are often competing for access to resources and channels. Information quickly becomes scarce, as institutions are incentivized to protect what and who they know from others. Work also becomes formulaic as the appetite for risk is low as access to funding is often ad hoc and precarious. Competition is fine and can contribute to stronger firms. However, other dynamics can also be supported that encourage ingenuity and collaboration, two elements ironically absent from too many creative organizations.

The good news is that technological and social change is resulting in lots of new approaches to organizing. The bad news is that we are collectively ill-equipped to nurture these new approaches and to introduce new diversity into our social and economic systems. We will likely only remember stories about the ideas that succeed, but we can be intentional about creating spaces where new approaches have a better chance of being remembered.