I first heard about Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structurelessness from Christina Xu at Brio.

I consider it to be one of the most important essays I’ve read, and I think often about organizations and how to help them be healthy and successful, while considering how to avoid the disempowerment that seems to be the default state of most.

Prior to reading this essay, I thought that flat and unstructured organizations were best, yet through the eye-opening perspective presented here, I’ve come to understand that no organizations are truly flat or unstructured.

But the essay’s definitely long.

Below are excerpts and summaries of key thoughts from this essay. I’m sharing this because I refer often to this fantastic work, and am disappointed to frequently hear “tl;dr” as a response.

I attribute 100% of the content below to Jo Freeman and I am extremely grateful for the wisdom contained in it. Please read the original article in its entirety!


The myth of “structurelessness”

Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. It does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones.

Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion.

Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power. It is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not).

As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.

Elites

A structured group always has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in Unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites.

An individual, as an individual can never be an elitist, because the only proper application of the term “elite” is to groups. Correctly, an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent.

Elites are not conspiracies.

Very seldom does a small group of people get together and deliberately try to take over a larger group for its own ends.

Because elites are informal does not mean they are invisible.

Consequences

  1. The informal structure of decision-making will be much like a sorority — one in which people listen to others because they like them and not because they say significant things.

  2. Informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group.

  3. Stars” — people who can’t be removed from positions of power, nor can they leave them without being visibly toppled from their pedestal. (This has a negative side for the group and the individuals, who also experience backlash for their unaccountable popularity.)

  4. Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting people to talk; they aren’t very good for getting things done. It is when people get tired of “just talking” and want to do something more that the groups flounder. (Possible for an informal structure to “work” on small scale, but not on a big one.)

  5. Harder to aim: “The more unstructured a movement it, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the actions in which it engages.”

Idle hands in unstructured groups

When a group has no specific task, the people in it turn their energies to controlling the group. This is not done so much out of a malicious desire to manipulate others as out of a lack of anything better to do with their talents.

Able people with time on their hands and a need to justify their coming together put their efforts into personal control, and spend their time criticizing the personalities of the other members in the group.

Key principles to keep in mind:

  1. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot so easily be ignored. 2.Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them. This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised.
  2. Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn different skills.
  3. Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s “property” and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.
  4. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group or giving them hard work because they are disliked serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of “apprenticeship” program rather than the “sink or swim” method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralizing. Conversely, being blacklisted from doing what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history; the movement does not need to repeat this process.
  5. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion — without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more politically effective one can be.
  6. Equal access to resources needed by the group. This is not always perfectly possible, but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press owned by a husband, or a darkroom) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills can be equitably available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.

When these principles are applied, they insure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and responsible to the group. The group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary. They will not be in such an easy position to institutionalize their power because ultimate decisions will be made by the group at large. The group will have the power to determine who shall exercise authority within it.