Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Breaking the Iron Law of Oligarchy

Posted in response to this question on Quora:
Organization Design: How can an organization mitigate the stagnation and inefficiency implied by the Iron Law of Oligarchy?
Thank  you for asking, Zach.  I don't think it's easy to mitigate the Iron Law  of Oligarchy, but it can be done if the organization recognizes the  danger and takes steps avoid it.  That's difficult because those who had  the assertiveness, energy and ability to form the organization can be  expected to oppose provisions that challenge their leadership.

An  early step is to understand that the qualities required to lead a  dynamic, vibrant organization change with time and circumstance.  Those  who found the organization may not be the best people to make it  productive.  Traditionally, this problem is addressed by having the  membership vote on candidates for leadership positions, a method that  has achieved such sanctity its weaknesses are dismissed.

There  are at least two reasons the traditional 'voting' approach leads  directly to the creation of an oligarchical structure.  One is the fact  that those who stand for election are the most assertive individuals in  the organization and another is that, since such elections are  popularity contests, the incumbents have an enormous advantage.

The  only way to counter these flaws is to devise an electoral process that  sifts through the entire membership to seek out those individuals with  the qualities needed to meet contemporary challenges and raise them to  leadership positions.  In doing so, those who seek to avoid oligarchy  must recognize that, within their organization, are many people who are  unaware of their leadership talents because they are never placed in a  situation that allowed their exercise.  Some of them, when they discuss  current and prospective organizational issues with their peers, will  blossom.  They may start out unsure of their ability, but when their  reason is consulted and they learn they can persuade others of the value  of their ideas, they gain confidence.  In doing so, they grow and  benefit the entire organization.

[Those interested in the  philosophical underpinnings of this approach can check out Edward  Clayton's excellent description of the Political Philosophy of Alasdair  MacIntyre in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]

To  eliminate oligarchs, the leadership selection method must ensure every  member can participate in the process to the full extent of each  individual's desire and ability.  That raises the immediate question of  how to give every member of a large group meaningful participation in  the electoral process without chaos.  One method is to create very small  groups of randomly chosen members and build a pyramid-like structure  based on their will.

Mitigating the Iron Law of Oligarchy is,  first of all, a matter of recognizing it is an inevitable result of the  traditional method of selecting leaders.  The only way to prevent it is  to change the way the leaders are chosen.

Thereafter, like any  other large problem, it can be solved by breaking it down.  The  resulting process must guarantee that those who are not accustomed to  the serious discussion of organizational issues are placed in  circumstances that allow and encourage them to participate  meaningfully.  The biggest hurdle will be overcoming a flood of  misdirection and obfuscation flowing from those proclaiming the sanctity  of the traditional method.


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