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Does Sustainability Scale? And what role does crisis play?

A second blog post on my meeting with Di Hornby, director of the Angus Gillis Foundation. One of the things Di was quite concrete about was that the Foundation will never grow larger than 5 members. Her reasoning was that all members can respond to crises in the community in a timely fashion - i.e. immediately. The thing is that crisis is an important growth element. Established structures are weakened by not being able to keep up with new demands, new methods start to emerge and a struggle ensues. (This is not unlike revolutions in scientific thinking as postulated by Tom Kuhn in the 60s.) This is an important time to assist the community and give them the confidence that the new structures can do all that the old ones did and more - confidence that the community can grow under it's own steam.

In eXtreme Programming (XP) practice, one does also not want groups that are too large, and classically each unit manages itself in day-to-day activities while aligning to an overall strategy. A software house like Google which is organised in a very decentralised manner, has many of these units, and "project leaders" switch from leading projects to programming in small teams often to ensure that the exchange of strategic and "local" knowledge takes place.

Such an informed peer-organised management style, which can also be achieved with XP management methods such as SCRUM, are surely applicable to Di's case. You need units that can react immediately, because they have the knowledge and mandate to do so. The responsibility rests on the team and there is always someone with enough experience to recognise the value of the crisis and the need of swift assistance.

Perhaps there is a way to bring such an innovative organisation style to development organisations! They certainly need it, it seems. After all, what model can development agencies be, if they themselves are bureaucratically and hierarchically organised with innovation stifling rules and processes... The lesson coming from XP is that process must be harmoniously married with the development, so that in the act of creating, innovating and developing, the very tools one uses to do the development must allow simple, intelligent documentation of the proceedings and this information must be available to all working on the project.

So does Sustainability scale? I certainly hope for the planet that it does! And on a positive sunny day like this I know it does. But first all people have to be empowered through knowledge and opportunity.

As we implement our Internet and Awareness training project - which now has a name (to be revealed later) - we will be seeing the effects that organisation has on sustainability. We will share our findings, as generously as Di did, and hope that it brings us all further.

Posted: June 5th 2008 12:59

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