Organizational Comparisons

by Walt Patrick

Organizations are formal ways in which people join together to do things they can't do, or don't want to do, alone. Some groups adopt organizational structures that have stood the test of time, while others strive to create essentially new structures. The problem with option #1 is that if you always do what you've always done, you'll probably just get more of what you've already got. If you're content with more of the status quo, then you're probably reading the wrong newsletter.

Most people adopt path #1 out of either ignorance or ego. The former if they don't know that they're trying to reinvent the wheel, and the latter if they know but insist on being in control. Sometimes a change of leadership will make a profound difference, but for the most part, the social dynamics of the situation will channel the interaction in directions consistent with the inherent structure.

Everyone wants to be a "winner." You need to be very careful how you define winning in your organization, because that's the sort of interaction your organization is going to be biased towards. While the leader may have some control over how the game is set up, once it's in play, performance is pretty much in the hands of the players.

The problem with the second option, starting from scratch, is that you don't really have any idea what you'll end up getting, and a lot of the surprises in life aren't the nice kind. Tinkering with a variable or two is one thing, but wholesale changes usually lead to unmitigated disaster. Your mileage may vary.

Historically, the most successful approach lies in taking an organizational structure which has proven successful in one area, and applying it in a different arena. An example would be the Grange which took a lot of the organizational structure of the Masonic lodge, and applied it to a previously untapped market, the rural farmer. Within a few years of start up, the Grange was growing so wildly that the home office was receiving more than three thousand new Grange charters a month!

An example:

Once upon a time, a college student spent his summer working in a check clearing house. When you deposit a check drawn on Bank A into your account in Bank B, ever wonder how that piece of paper makes it back to Bank A?

In the evening, there's a place where a representative of Bank A takes the checks deposited in Bank A that day for sorting. After sorting, the rep for Bank A returns with all the checks which were drawn on Bank A that day. This "hub" structure provides a quick and efficient way to deliver high value-to-weight cargo, an insight that wasn't lost on that summer intern.

That fellow went on to serve two tours in Viet Nam as a helicopter pilot, an experience which impressed upon him the potential role of aircraft for transporting time-critical materials. Blending the two areas of interest together, he conceived of using airplanes to do for business what the courier system did for banks.

In time, that vision became known as Federal Express. When you Fed Ex a package from Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas, your package is loaded onto a jet which flies it through the evening sky to Memphis, Tenn. Once there, your package is unloaded into a great sorting shed where it finds its way to the plane which brought similar packages to Memphis from Austin. Once all the packages are sorted, the plane starts its journey back to Austin with your package.

So, here's an example of how an organizational structure that worked in one context was transmogrified into something "new." In some ways, Fed Ex's offering of overnight delivery was a new and daring concept, but in others, it was a logical extension of a process that had already proved workable. That isn't to say that there wasn't a lot of risk involved, because there certainly was, but having a viable, functioning model to work from went a long way towards underlying the successful formation of a this organizational structure.

One last point on the Fed Ex story. It took a lot of money to get everything set in place before the first package was delivered. Some business can be grown from one store into a chain, but this was one that had to come off the ground with most of the structure in place and operating from day one. I remember a reporter asking the founder if he had been scared at that point. He replied that after serving two tours as a chopper pilot in 'Nam, it was hard to get scared when all that was at stake was money.

Walt starts to get to the point

Perhaps the organizational model closest to Windward would be that of a large law firm with its clerks, associates, junior partners and senior partners. The biggest problem with the analogy is that few people have much of an idea how such an organization actually works, but some explanation is in order.

Level one: gaining experience

Some of the people at Windward are in residence and could be compared to the clerks in a law firm. They've come to Windward because it makes sense for them at the time; maybe they'll decide to stay, and maybe they'll move on. If living in community was easy, a whole lot more people would be doing it. Most folk today have been raised in the consumer culture, and while the thought of disconnecting from that value system may be very romantic, the prospect of actually doing it can be very daunting.

Sometimes, I don't know if the bigger challenge lies in all the things they have to learn, or in all the things they have to unlearn. Consumerism is so easy. You don't have to know anything, you don't have to do anything or plan anything. All you have to do is come up with the money. What you may have to do to come up with the money, well now, that's another story. As long as you've got the cash, the good times keep rolling and everybody's happy. And, when the money runs out, nobody knows your name.

Intentional community is different. Here, for the most part, we do things for ourselves. That requires knowledge, planning, attention-to-detail, and a healthy dose of effort, but the results are meaningful. Buy a loaf of bread and you've got a loaf of bread. You'll eat today, but unless you can replace the money you spent, what will you eat tomorrow?

On the other hand, if you take the time to learn, and I mean really learn, to make your own bread, then you can be sure that you and the people you love will eat tomorrow. Moreover, you'll gain at least three things you couldn't buy:

1) You'll have a real loaf of bread. Store-bought bread is not made from whole wheat; even "whole wheat" isn't whole wheat. When wheat is milled commercially, it's processed to remove many components, bleached and then "enriched." Some of it has bran and middlings added back in, and that's what's sold as whole wheat. If you want real, nutritious whole wheat bread, you need to grind the wheat just before you make your dough.

2)You'll have a marketable product. At the same time you're learning to meet your own needs, you're also learning how to meet the needs of others. Once you make the transition from being a passive consumer to becoming an active producer, a creator, you're then free to explore a broad and fascinating world of ways to express your creativity by creating value. Once someone grasps that it really isn't a matter of making money, but rather of creating value, they've turned the corner. If you have the ability to create value, you'll always have something to trade for what you need and want.

3)You'll also gain a number of intangible things. Money can buy you a loaf of bread, but it can't buy you the satisfaction that comes from being able to do for yourself and provide for your loved ones. Money can't buy you pride of achievement or self-esteem. The consumer culture tells you that you'll be happy if you buy this car or wear that style of clothes, but it's a lie. Any happiness you can buy is shallow and short-lived.

Self-reliance can offer a sense of contentment and a pride-of-accomplishment that can't be purchased at any price.

Level Two: building a niche

Once a clerk passes the Bar exam, they move from studying the law to practicing it. "Law" is a vast field, and there are all sorts of areas a new lawyer can specialize in. Law firms have associates who work with partners while they learn the art of actually doing what they've studied to do. No matter how much you've studied and prepared, actually practicing law involves taking a tremendous step, and learning to do it well doesn't happen in a day.

The Windward equivalent involves moving from resident to apprentice status. An apprentice is someone who has decided that they want to become an ongoing part of Windward. It takes time to build an appropriate niche for an individual, including an income stream which blends a person's passion with their needs.

It may be counterintuitive, but a substantive degree of self-reliance is only really possible in the company of other self-reliant individuals. An independent community relies on the interdependency of the community. As apprentices learn to be productive on a broad and fundamental basis, they evolve from people who help make the organization go forward into people who can help take it in new directions. An organization is a social engine, and once someone learns to care for and operate that engine, they're ready to do interesting and worthwhile things with it.

Just as an associate in a law firm is guided through that process by a partner, at Windward an apprentice is guided through our process by a full member. Unfortunately, guidance inevitably involves criticism, something which is never easy to take. And yet, the likelihood of someone divesting themselves of one culture and becoming proficient in another is marginal at best without close attention-to-detail, a solid understanding of the transitional process and a lot of luck.

Passing the bar doesn't turn a law student into a effective lawyer, any more than joining Windward makes someone into an effective, self-reliant person. Still, you have to take the process one step at a time, or you run the real risk of accomplishing nothing more than wasting your time. You learn as you go, or you don't go very far.

Self-reliance, like other great fields of study such as law, medicine or chemistry, looks straightforward enough from the outside. But pry any of them open, begin to immerse yourself, and they seem to unfold into the most marvelous panorama. They can work a magic which can transform one's day to day work into the sort of adventure on the landscape of imagination which can last a life time.

Level 3: making a living

While personal growth should be a never-ending adventure, there does come a point where a person's growth and commitment needs to be formally recognized. After someone has put in two years, they're welcome to request recognition as a full member.

Full membership opens up a number of options. For example, full members are charged with the responsibility of directing the future of our organization. On a more personal level, full members are welcome to focus on creating an enterprise which is especially theirs. When someone operates a business out of Windward, it's their business, but it also touches on our reputation as an organization. Full membership is a recognition that we trust that individual to represent us.

By the two year point, a member will have gotten a solid grasp on how Windward works; on what sorts of things it does well, and what it doesn't. No one organizational form can be all things to all people. We've worked to make Windward as diverse and flexible as we can figure out how to make it, but still there are real limits. Learning the organization's abilities and limits is much of what the apprenticeship period is all about.

In our comparative law firm, a partner would be involved in developing the firm's presence and prestige in some portion of the field of law. The key is that the law firm's partners, and Windward's full members, have earned a position which enables them to simultaneous advance both the organization's and their own agendas. It's a position of responsibility and trust reserved for those who have gone the distance and proven themselves.

Level 4: making a life

Senior partners, and Windward's senior members, are those who have made a long and ongoing investment into creating the organization, and into shaping it as an expression of their personal vision. One of the challenges for people trying to get a grasp as to just what Windward's about derives from the way that it simultaneously amplifies a number of compatible but separate visions.

Windward isn't any one thing; rather it's a context of interconnected and complimentary objectives. For most people, a lesser level of involvement is sufficient to meet their needs. The process is successfully completed when a person reaches the level of involvement which best suits their needs. If a second level involvement is best for them, then the achievement of that level is a success, and it would be counterproductive to try to push on towards a higher degree of enmeshment. Success is what works; no more, and no less.

We don't have any special rights and privileges that go with senior member status, but there are some. A member can request organizational support at any level, but whether or not the BoD will go along with their request has a lot to do with their credibility within the organization. The more a person has done for the organization, the greater their claim on the organization for support for their personal interests.

An example would be a desire to build a personal residence on Windward property. When a person builds their dream house, there's a lot more invested in it than mere money. If, for some reason, they should decide they no longer want to participate in Windward, that house could become a very contentious issue. In the end, the only option would be for the organization to buy the house, and even then it would be very difficult to arrive at a price that would be perceived as fair to everyone concerned.

Since there really isn't any good way out of such a dilemma, we're very reluctant to get into a situation which could turn out that way. Time and again, we remind people to not invest anything into Windward 1) that they can't carry away with them when and if they decide to leave or 2) that they can't walk away from. If someone has been with Windward for some five years, they know this, and know that if they build a home on land that has been irrevocably dedicated, they are in effect donating it to the organization whenever the day comes that they have no more use for it.

Windward's senior members are, in order of seniority, Cynthia Smith, Walt Patrick, Bob Shuck, Danny Savage, Laurel Young, Elva Mongeon, Robert Rodgers and Joyce Marlow.