Humans seem incapable of wrapping their heads around or accepting chaos. We’re really good at being resilient and responding to chaos as or after it happens, we just don’t seem to accept that it chaos is reality. We put enormous energy in to creating systems, cultures, rules, mores, etiquettes, collectively held ideas etc almost as if to ignore the fact that everything is essentially totally transient and out of our control. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like cultures and collectively agreed on ideas – I just think there is a deep irony at play here, especially with regards to how we build organisations and projects.
So if we start at with this idea of chaos then how do we create organisations, projects and workplaces equipped to deal with this reality of changeability and the random? How do we create conditions that are safe and supportive to be creative, responsive and make great work?
I think that systems, clarity of roles, access to information and shared understanding of vision are vital. I have also spent a lot of time training in and thinking about processes; meeting processes, decision making processes, training processes, info sharing and induction processes etc. Now though, I am starting to think that the culture and dynamic of a group or team is just as important as any structures that are collectively agreed on or written down in a constitution or business plan.
It isn’t an either/or with structure or culture – they certainly inform each other, but I have seen plenty of organisations with glowing values and structures on paper and really poor process and culture in reality. Walking the talk takes more than a plan with lofty values put together after 2 days with butchers paper and coloured textas.
A phrase we’ve been using amongst friends in Alice Springs is “we hold each other up by invisible threads” and I think it is this holding that creates the most dynamic and productive of spaces. That is, if you feel supported, safe, critically honest and held by your team, management, organisation then there is much more scope for exploration, growth and most importantly; creative risk. The most exceptional work, the most successful work, relies on the space to take creative risk; together.
So how to create the structure that best promotes a culture of honest, critical, challenging and supportive holding? What are the practical ways of building a dynamic and trusting culture within a project or team?
After many years rejecting the very idea of leadership, which was, I think a very unsophisticated approach to anarchist theory, I have started to understand that leadership is highly important and not very well taught, talked about or understood in general. Especially amongst NGOs, community orgs and in the arts. The tall poppy syndrome could also take some blame here I reckon.
Now I think groups and projects need leadership to flourish. Not necessarily one central leader for everything, different people can lead in different ways; ie Pantjiti, Makinti, Amanyi and Lorna lead Ngapartji Ngapartji culturally, whereas Scott and I lead it in the overall design and producing and Damian and Beth lead musically.
Building a good organisation or team culture is also something that is achieved by behavioural and cultural leadership within a team. Creating dynamics through deeds and practice, not just written guides. I have observed many groups and organisations suffering from dysfunction, bad treatment of each other, siege mentality, sniping or just making mediocre work because the dynamic does not hold each person up by invisible threads and support them to grow and do their best work.
The more held people are in an organisation the more flexible and able to move quickly, deal with emerging opportunities and chaos, the more creative and productive an organisation can be.
The ‘work of how we work‘ together is often overlooked or seen as secondary to the tasks at hand and our upcoming deadlines. If good work is not done building a strong, healthy and supportive internal culture then making brilliant work is impossible and people burn out and leave hurt rather than inspired by the work. Things also tend to stumble or fall apart when chaotic events and conflicts arise.
Because of chaos and because the terrain, politics, people, community with which we work are constantly changing and growing this work of how we work needs constant attention. It shouldn’t tip over in to navel gazing, as with all things it requires balance, but it needs to be much more valued in our planning, project design, collaboration and art making than it appears to me that it is at present.