Freedom For Ideas

Sharing ideas, concepts and thoughts, mainly about Information Technology – and consulting

A 2000 years old new model!

Posted by Yannick Martel on November 6, 2008


I recently came to read this fascinating article by Poppendieck.LLC, where the roots of the organisation of our modern corporate entities and teams are traced back to a train accident in 1841. The Western Railroad company conducted an investigation on the accident, and concluded it had to find a new model for its business to be able to manage safely its growth and the geographic dispersion – elements which were historically quite absent from the old workshop and small factories.

Two notable organisational models existed at the time: the army and the church. They choose the army. This founded the tradition of hierarchical organisations and the culture of delegating to individuals pieces of the job at hand. One individual is responsible for each piece, and delegates downwards to other individuals in charge of smaller and smaller pieces. When there is a problem, the fault is on the individual (or individuals) in charge of the faulty element – and we only have to blame him and ultimately change him to solve the problem.

Today this hierarchical model and the culture of (blame) delegation which goes with it show their limitations with the complex problems we face, such as cooperating to manage and evolve complex IT infrastructures. In many places we try to infuse a new culture of collective responsibility and to foster self-managed teams – along with other Agile practices.

What would modern corporations look like if they had got inspiration from the church during the post train-wreck reorganisation? This is quite difficult to say now! Interestingly though some of the practices which at OCTO we try to propagate parallel some elements of my personal experience of the Catholic Church of today.

Let’s take collective responsibility. The Agile mouvement holds that the best products are made by self-managed teams practicing collective responsibility. In the same way, the Church teaches that everybody is hurt when one fails: just as the Christ suffers from the sins of every one of us, every one of us suffers from the sins of any of us. Thus everyone of us can mention to a brother his fault. If the brother doesn’t hear me, then I have to grab a few other brothers and come again to talk to him. As in Agile, if I see a problem, then I own it – even if I don’t actually know how to solve it. Christians have been traditionnally very active socially, for instance in charity organisations which often have emerged without the need for central leadership or coordinated and structured action from “management”. The local Church as well works if not always smoothly at least reasonably well thanks to individual initiatives and much goodwill.

Talking about organisation, from an outsider’s perspective, the Church has a complex organisation, but we have indeed two levels of hierarchy: fidels and bishops. The bishops are guiding the fidels in their area – that’s it. Even the Pope is only the bishop of Roma. He has higher authority because he is the successor of Saint Peter, but that’s a very different authority from a boss at GlobalCorp Inc. He is officially referred as the “servant to the servants”, his role being to help and guide the other bishops, who are to help and guide the people of God. To me, it looks very much like the inverted pyramid of the Toyota Way: the managers’ role is to help workers who are everyday on the gemba, the floor of the factory. They are to provide longer-term guidance and help with their experience – to serve, not to request obedience. It is also similar to the role of managers in self-directed Agile development teams: helping, not interfering or directing work.

After all the Catholic Church has stood the test of time, being in existence for nearly 2000 years, going through difficulties, periods of decays, rebirths, schisms, but still existing and bringing a message to humanity. We probably could learn a few things from this collective experience.


3 Responses to “A 2000 years old new model!”

  1. Agile methodologies indeed have a strong religious flavor to them. See my post Agile Methodists – The New Religion

    I feel this is undesirable. Religion is a matter of heart and soul. Software development is a matter of the mind.

  2. I agree with you in that we should not worship the models or ideas we formulate (such as Agile), turning them into religious objects of adoration.

    My point instead is that a church is also a human organisation, and worth of study as such for helping corporate teams – allowing for the differences in goals of course.

  3. […] my previous post on the Church as an organizational model worth studying (here), I hope that you agree at least a bit that some of the organizational qualities of the Church are […]

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