All living systems age. Even organizations. This doesn’t mean that organizations die like human beings; but, there are lessons we can learn about how our organization evolves over time. In much the same way that our personal aging changes us irreversibly, so too does the passage of time alter the range and focus of our Mission 1 and Mission 2.
In the system theory framework, there are four general phases of “aging” in complex adaptive systems (including advocacy organizations):
“The Panarchy model suggests that systems follow a four-phase adaptive cycle of (1) “exploitation”…; (2) “conservation”…; (3) “release”…; and (4) “reorganization”….” From, Cynefin, Panarchy, PDCA, OODA and value creation curves
- Exploitation: For advocacy organizations, exploitation is a way of thinking about the universe of possibilities that exist when that organization first begins its advocacy work. It is an unfortunate fact that oppression and marginalization of devalued communities creates a very large context in which advocacy can take place. The choices that an advocacy organization makes when it begins to interact with this universe of advocacy possibilities are usually a mix of the worst problems the community faces and the immediate resources that the organization has. Regardless of what drives the choices, these initial decisions create the learning environment for the advocates. This learning environment can have a profound effect on the development of the organization and its advocacy. So, for our goals, exploitation is really learning.
- Conservation: The most common way Mission 1 and Mission 2 interact is the use of M1 to generate resources that become the core of the organization’s strategy for Mission 2. In other words, the organization uses it’s core passion to generate resources to keep the organization going. “Resources” doesn’t just mean money. They include a governing board, reputation, social support, staff capabilities, and organizational infrastructure like equipment, fund-raising events, financial documents, and so on. Over time, what was done earlier in the development of resources constrains what can be done later. So Conservation doesn’t just mean saving. It also means the conservation of a path of organizational development. As useful as such an approach is, it reduces the flexibility of the advocacy organization.
- Release: Release in organizational terms means the breakdown of the organization’s ability to pursue its core mission (M1). This can happen because the organization has become a bureaucracy and only pursues its own maintenance (M2), because it has altered its core mission to something that no longer inspires support, or because it has become corrupted and is only a tool or opportunity for its staff and stakeholders to exploit for their own individual ends. Whatever resources remain are “released” into the environment, and abandoned or picked up by other organizations.
- Reorganization: The resources released during Phase 3 begin to reorganize themselves immediately. It is the reorganization that allows the possibility for exploitation or new learning.
In later posts, I will discuss each of these phases in greater detail. It is the case that advocacy strategy has to match not only the problems of a supported devalued community. That strategy has to fit the phase of the adaptive cycle in which the organization