Long Live the Panarchy

Big projects have a higher chance of failure than small projects, primarily for sociological and communicative reasons. Some sources even claim that the odds of successful completion of a project disappear almost completely with large-scale projects.

But I’m an anarchist, and an optimist. I believe we can solve these problems by breaking things down and then blowing them up. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Agilists and anarchists break up big projects into small projects, and they break up large organizations into small organizations. Then they blow things up by scaling the small working parts to similar-looking big working parts. An agile organization is the inverse of bureaucracy through top-down planning. It is adaptability through bottom-up growth.

With the rise of global markets, the Internet, social networks, and other network-like developments, there is a global trend that looks very similar to the emergence of agile organizations. On a transnational scale such a network is called a panarchy. I love the word, because it is just one letter removed from my natural state of mind.

The emerging complexity of our social and political structures, composed of many interacting agents, combined with the increasing importance of network forms of organization, enabled by technologies that increase connectivity, propels the world system towards a transformation that culminates in a global political environment that is made up of a diversity of spheres of governance, the whole of which is called panarchy. To clarify, global linkages between individuals and groups create transnational networks consisting of shared norms and goals. […] Panarchy is governance as a complex adaptive system of anarchical networks that relies on diversity and resists hierarchy in order to function and adapt.
Panarchy: Governance in the Network Age – Paul Hartzog

A panarchy is a system of overlapping networks of collaboration and authority. As an individual I subject myself not only (unwillingly) to the authority of my government, but also (willingly) to that of my bank, my Internet and energy providers, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, sports and game clubs, non-profit and charity organizations, and foreign governments when I’m traveling abroad. (And other people can add religious and political organizations to that list.)

There are many sources of authority in the world, and as an individual I choose to subject myself to the rules and norms of any group or organization that I wish to participate in. The only one I cannot choose directly is my government. (Unless I pick up my stuff and move somewhere else.)

These days being an anarchist is not what it used to be. I now call myself a panarchist. A panarchist is an anarchist who is acting peacefully. Brian Marick, one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto, has similar ideas and calls it Artisanal Retro-Futurism crossed with Team-Scale Anarcho-Syndicalism. But I think the word panarchy is easier. And I hope the stickers are cheaper.

The rise of global network governance is a process that is to some extent shaped by states, but it is not controlled by them, and it is also shaped by corporations, individuals, non-governmental organizations, and other groups. It is as yet unclear if any one of those entities trumps the others, although realists would claim the state holds the trump card, and Marxists would claim that it is capital that is in the driver’s seat. History has shown that ultimately it is the people who are in charge, and the new connective technologies have only increased their power and ability to organize collective action.
Panarchy: Governance in the Network Age” – Paul Hartzog

We can now understand why true agile organizations are panarchies. They have multiple sources of authority within the agile organization, including those dealing with architecture, GUI design, project management, and infrastructure. Each team can subject itself, willingly, to the rules and norms of some specialist groups. But they can also form such functional teams themselves, or simply decide to do everything inside their own team. There is plenty of freedom to be anarcho-syndicalist or peacefully anarchist. The only choice people usually cannot make themselves is that of line management. Unless they move to another organization.

A panarchy is an organic approach to organizational design, resulting in a fractal-like structure of small hierarchies which are all superimposed on one another in one big network. And because it favors scaling out over scaling up, there is no end to the growth of a panarchy. In fact, a worldwide panarchy is already in place. It is called the United Nations. As an anarchist I complain about its bureaucracy, and the less it does the better. But being peaceful I’m willing to accept it for what it is. After all, which other planet can I go to?

(Note: if you find this interesting, please attend my session at Agile 2010, on Thursday, August 12.)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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  • http://profile.typepad.com/lojudicesobrinho David Lojudice Sobrinho

    Hi Jurgen. Great post! Your posts have inspired me a lot.
    I’m talking about this agile/complex approach on how to build large systems for large companies on a session in QCon São Paulo: http://www.qconsp.com/palestra/david-lojudice-sobrinho/case-cms-abril-system-of-systems-e-arquitetura-quase-caotica

  • http://futureworksconsulting.com/blog Diana Larsen

    Jurgen,
    You might also be interested in the structure of the United Religions Initiative ( http://www.uri.org/ ) which has an interesting system of interlocking circles. I first heard about it from David Cooperrider, one of the seminal thinkers in Appreciative Inquiry, as he was involved in the URI organization’s start c. 1997.
    I really like your point that Panarchy is an easier word to pronounce than ARxTAs, while having many similar attributes.

  • http://fugitive.quadrantcrossing.org tV

    The idea that interlocking networks can somehow interrelate without hierarchy requires two predicates: (1) the elimination of all military networks; (2) the elimination of hierarchical networks themselves, including that of accumulated capital. Otherwise the “flat” model is simply overrun by those with money + guns. It’s fairly simple. So the question of attaining panarchy does not provide anything new to the same questions that trump anarchy to begin with, which in short is: how do you control, police or ensure that no network overtakes others — without hierarchy?
    I’m really unclear how the United Nations is an example of panarchy. The UN is a hierarchial organisation in terms of representation, majority-based decision making, and hierarchical Council decision-making and veto power (the Security Council veto powers — which overrules all other aspects of the UN).
    Unless you foresee that panarchy requires precisely this kind of hierarchical control method? If so, then it does not seem to offer much in terms of dissolving the nation state or already-in-place methods of hierarchy.
    Sounds to me it needs to be a tad more thought-out. Also, that online networks such as Facebook, Linked-In etc count as “networks” of panarchy to me only reveals the limits of this vision in the 21C. Online corporate datamining and commercialization networks that institute the loss of privacy should not under any circumstances be confused with nonhierarchical networks deserving of anarchic potential — even if they can be subverted from the inside-out, the limits to do so are limited by the ownership of said networks by corporate persons and private interests that are anything but benign.

  • http://livingfreewithforrest.blogspot.com/ Forrest B

    Panarchy is well thought out, it dates back to the 1860’s. Many people are too lazy to read things that are older then they are because of the usage of older more flowery languages.
    You have to remember that the idea of Panarchy is one that follows the idea of Laissez-faire, laissez-passer, that is to say ‘do not interfere, let it pass.’ That being said, for every individual you speak to, you’ll find another alternative to how they may work. In fact any of my answers will no doubt create more questions, and so the process will continue till I can no longer answer to your satisfaction, and to which you will then say, ‘it will never work because of X’. Only the real world establishes what does or doesn’t work.
    To answer you question,’how do you control, police or ensure that no network overtakes others — without hierarchy?’ I say this.
    Where one see a hierarchical structure today in the real world, it is in fact nothing more then a hierarchy within a hierarchy. The largest hierarchy is the universe, everything within that hierarchy is nothing more then nest of hierarchies, and so the problem becomes where do you start the change. The range of hierarchies is the universe to the individual, so you plot your change somewhere in between. I personally suggest the individual level to start your change, but it takes the most time and effort to do that, but it is often where most ideas sprout from.
    You can not stop any other hierarchy from taking over another hierarchy, and in fact this is a usually a desirable outcome. Look to real world examples of voluntary hierarchical structure take overs, such as company mergers, political party mergers, governmental mergers and the like, where ever violence was not the method of change, you will find a merger who’s outcome was desired and once effected, the resulting entity is better off for it(usually). In those cases where it wasn’t effective, or wasn’t better off for it, you’ll usually find that the concept wasn’t well thought out. As Edison was asked about his previous failures to the light bulb he replied, that they weren’t failures, but that they were successes in proving how it wouldn’t work.
    The freedom of religion, to choose which religion you belong to, is a test case in point to Panarchy. At a time there was violence between different beliefs, but over time all religions now teach tolerance between themselves and others. There are a few extremist religions today, it is true, and they have always been there, however they are in the minority, regardless of what you may have heard, for if they were in the majority, religious violence would be daily worldwide, rather then only local regions.

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