Autonomy and Cohesion

The viability and welfare of socio-technical systems depend on their ability to balance autonomy and cohesion.

Is that true for other systems? Yes, it is remarkably universal. It works for biological systems like bacteria or elephants and social systems like packs of wolves, termites or beehives. However, this series focuses on socio-technical systems such as organizations, governments, and networks.

Autonomy brings adaptability and short-term effectiveness.

Cohesion brings efficiency and long-term effectiveness.

In viable systems, the balance between autonomy and cohesion is well maintained at all levels. And they have a way to restore it when it is disturbed.

Thinking in terms of dynamics of essential balances, one of which is that between autonomy and cohesion, has benefits over the usual dilemmas such as centralized/decentralized, hierarchical/flat, waterfall/agile and suchlike. If you are curious, you may watch this webinar for a bit more details or check out the book for an in-depth exploration. In the following series of articles, I’ll expand on topics only briefly mentioned in the book, such as the way the balance works outside organizations, how different systems differ by the way in which cohesion is achieved, and how some cohesion technologies achieve cohesion without reducing autonomy. Then, I’ll move on to decentralization and other topics. But we need to cover the basics first, which is what this and the next article will do.

What is meant by the balance between autonomy and cohesion, and how does it work?
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Requisite Hypocrisy

The city is charged with tension and a sense of urgency. After years of oppression, people’s frustration has reached its boiling point. The streets are flooded with bodies, united in their demand for equality. As you navigate through the crowd, you are just one among the countless anonymous faces. Only those next to you can see you and hear you.

The air is thick with determination and rhythmic chants. Every step brings you closer to the center square, where a stage stands as a symbol of hope and a platform for change.

You ascend the stage. A hush falls over the crowd. All eyes are fixed on the figure that has emerged from their midst. Now everybody can see you. You are given a mike. Now everybody can hear you. You are no longer equal, but only this way you can make the case for equality and help it happen.

Means rarely share values with goals. It can be temporary, just a learning stage, a Wittgenstanian ladder you can throw away after you climb up. Or, an ostensibly necessary compromise, like the oikonomia (same word as economy) in the Orthodox church, where you can deviate from the letter of the law to adhere to the spirit of the law. But in many cases, it is a necessity. A requisite hypocrisy.

You need a platform from which to talk against platforms.
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