Rhizomtic thinking and organisation development – OD Alternatives

Rhizomtic thinking and organisation development

Recognizing OD (organisation development) as an ever-evolving confluence of multiple disciplines; psychology, sociology, philosophy and management has been exhilarating for me. While I look at the history of OD and its stages of evolution it’s fascinating to see how parallel stages of development in these disciplines have influenced perceptions, modes of engagements of OD thinkers and practitioners in a massive way. For instance, how behaviourism in psychology has impacted competency-based work and how the humanistic school is inspiring explorations around beliefs, mindsets and identity of an individual.

This way the evolution of OD is Rhizomatic.

So, what’s Rhizomatic. The best way to understand this is by comparing a tree and crabgrass (a Rhizome). In the case of a tree, the growth is hierarchical and bound to one trunk while in the case of crabgrass the growth is non-linear with a network of roots and offshoots. A Rhizome is essentially a non-hierarchical network of loops, folding and growing through multiple sites of exit and entry. While it may not have a central organisation, together their seemingly random behaviour creates a pattern which is the essence of its existence. Perhaps that’s why OD is so tough to comprehend for many, particularly for someone from management consulting practice who may be trained to think in a more linear fashion :-). Another reason why it gets difficult to define OD using a singular definition.

While Rhizome may be a good metaphor to relate to the evolution & history of OD, what could be the impact of Rhizomatic thinking in OD practice?

Rhizomatic thinking is first described by Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher, and Félix Guattari, a French psychiatrist and political activist in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. They established through this book that as opposed to ‘tree’ thinking which is about rootedness, centralisation, hierarchy and linear structures Rzyzomatic thinking helps us looks at systems in a different fashion which is about acknowledging the multiplicity, multi-centeredness, connections, and heterogeneity. This in the 80’s inspired a lot of political movement and work. Terrorist organisation are more rhizomatic than corporates. There may not be one central command for Al Queda, they operate more like a Rhizome than a tree. This might explain how they have thrived even after Osama Bin Laden was taken out. As stated earlier Rhizome may not have a central organisation but together their seemingly random behaviour creates a pattern which becomes the essence of its existence. Looking at things through this lens has implications for studying natural phenomena, social movements, and activism and organisation challenges.

So we may be able to see applications of Rhizomatic thinking in the practice of OD in organisation design and leadership.

Cliff Oswick author of ‘OD and metaphorical explorations’ and faculty at Cass Business school describes how organisation design is increasingly becoming Rhyzomatic. He takes examples of companies like Zappos and Value Gaming where hierarchies are getting replaced by social networks.

‘Value gaming’ as an organisation does not have a hierarchy, they are organised as networks. Networks of people who could add value and in areas they care about. Here the remuneration is decided collectively and not by a comp & ben manager or consultant. While this may be extreme for a traditional organisation to conceive, we get to notice even in some of the traditional organisations the degree of hierarchy is eroding progressively and networks have started gaining more importance.

We at ODA have designed a tool called Orgnodes (www.orgnodes.com) to map such networks and explore ways to leverage the strength of social networks in large organisation change initiatives. This is not about lining everyone and analysing them based on a predefined set of competencies or assessing their allegiance to a larger organisation agenda.

Social networking analysis is more like peeping into the crabgrass inside the organisation to study power centres and influencers.

This insight can also be leveraged to create new possibilities for the organisation. Diagnosis need not be always reductive it can be creative as well.

Ultimately Rhyzomatic thinking can lead us to ways to tranform organisations into self-organising ecosystems. The objective will be to create conditions where people can self-organise around things which matter to them and what they care about.

As Oswick says creating a self-organising system would demand a practice of ‘active non-leadership’ from the leaders. Which means managers need to start embracing the idea that

managers need to start embracing the idea that people are committed to making a difference and the role of a manager is how you help them and not how you control them in making that difference

This indeed a radical departure from what we have been taught, believed and practised thus far.

I personally feel that this is important not because it’s new and it’s fashionable but because of the evolving social expectations and changing nature of organisations