I’m taking an Organizational Behavior class this semester, and at the heart of the class is a series of tensions that all organizations face in deciding how to go about their work.  These tensions aren’t problems which can be solved, but basically a series of choices along a two-ended spectrum – for example, whether to focus on being profitable (exploitation) or innovative (exploration), or to structure themselves with formal or informal roles and processes.  Organizations don’t just do one or the other, but there are generally tradeoffs associated with each choice which may or may not work well for what the organization is trying to accomplish, and what other choices they’ve made.

This made me think of another tension which manifests in a variety of situations, one often on my mind (though not always in so many words) and certainly important to individual members of any group:

Is it more valuable to achieve an end, emphasizing the efficiency of completing the job, or have the process be valuable for those involved, emphasizing the agency of group members?

This is an open question, and a dilemma which gets at the heart of urban planning, among other things.  Sometimes the choice is clear.  A task needs to get done quickly and accurately, so a group delegates that task to the most competent person, or the leader takes on the task him/herself.  Or, a task is used as a learning experience for a new initiate or often a child, and it is more important that the doer gains experience than that the task is done in a particular way or to a certain standard.  In most situations, however, these two goals require very different means to reach the same end.  A project can be structured with decision making power concentrated in a few positions, a strictly-defined process emphasizing results and resource management over creativity, and division of labor according to who can already best complete the tasks.  Conversely, a project can have the same end result but be deliberated over by all equally-contributing members, leave the design of process to individuals or subgroups given targets to reach, and teams formed to emphasize members’ learning new skills or developing new processes.

Neither is better than the other, especially given the goals and constraints of an individual situation, but they have different underlying priorities.  Is it better to keep resources to a strict budget, or allow for some “waste” with the potential pay-off of new ideas or future savings?  Could time spent discussing a decision be better spent by instead giving everyone a specific role?  And perhaps most fundamentally, is the product of this project more important than the participants’ experience of completing it?

Debates about regulation and autonomy reflect this tension.  While those who advocate for the free market (versus centralized planning in the form of government regulation, land use controls, taxation, etc.) would argue that the system is more efficient because it responds more readily to changing resource conditions through supply and demand, in reality it is not clear (to me) that the free market always produces maximum efficiency.  The example which comes to mind is the privatization of city bus services in England, resulting in two bus systems running essentially the same routes in the town of Oxford, neither honoring the other’s ticket stubs.  A more consistent underlying assumption of the free market seems to be that regardless of their ends, rational beings are best left to act autonomously, and it is their pursuit of these ends rather than the ends themselves which will collectively create a functional system.  In terms of resource management, it may be more efficient to control and selectively allocate scarce resources, or to allow unilateral decision making rather than engaging in an endless democratic process, but these diminish the agency of individual participants, and may be less a problem of inefficiency than of “inautonomy.”

The history of urban planning seems to symbolize this tension, particularly the division between large-scale planning projects such as urban renewal or Moses-style infrastructure building, and participatory planning projects like community development, constituent empowerment, and environmental justice.  While the outcome is not unimportant, it is the process which, time-consuming and open-ended, grants a sense of agency to the previously-disenfranchised and ultimately brings more people into the conversation.  Making all zoning decisions by local referendum is not efficient, but it (in theory) allows citizens to have a say in what happens in their community.  Rationing the town’s water supply or mandating total greywater recycling  would (in theory) diminish waste, but political implementation would be extremely difficult insofar as it impedes on individuals’ rights to use water on their own property.

This tension plays out even on a small scale in a group meeting.  Who sets the agenda?  How are decisions made and tasks delegated?  Is it more important to run through the to-do list to meet a deadline, or to allow people to choose their own tasks and decide how they will get them done?  What is the individual member’s experience of working in the group and feeling empowered, and how much does this matter?  How much does it matter that they are given an opportunity designed to let them learn something new?

I put to you the idea that this tension is present, though rarely explicit, in any situation in which a group must somehow make a decision and/or complete a project.  Furthermore, I suggest that many group conflicts, particularly between a group’s leader and its members, may be traced to some form of this tension.  Where two or more individuals have very different views about which takes priority, the dispute may instead surface about micromanaging, time wasted in roundabout discussions, dictatorial decision making, or being pigeonholed into a certain role.

It might therefore be helpful to also talk about a group conflict in these terms, something I haven’t tried yet in this context but which may get past the surface matter and at the assumptions behind it.  Worth a try!

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