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A “Barefoot” Foundation

A “Barefoot” foundation

In my previous post, I introduced the value of paying attention to the models or frameworks that inform our understanding of organizations and what enables them to be effective.  I described two  books that had an important influence on my own understanding at the start of my career. In this post, I am going to describe a third framework that has had an important influence on my approach and practice in building the effectiveness of organizations.

When you take a systems perspective on organizations, you begin to understand  that they have a dynamic interaction with the environment within which they are located, and that changes both within and outside the organization can have a influence on its potential for effectiveness. Looking at the world around us, we see many examples of this dynamic interaction, not least in the natural world. So if organizations are social systems, created by the people who are part of these organizations, it is not a big stretch to consider that organizations may share many similarities with the people who inhabit them.

One of the key frameworks that help me understand this draws from the work of Bernard Lievegoed, the founder of the NPI Institute of Organization Development.  Along with my colleagues at Olive OD&T at the time, I was introduced to this work by Mario van Boeschoten, James Taylor, Sue Soal and their colleagues at CDRA in Cape Town.

One of the key concepts is that organizations, like people, develop in predictable and understandable fashions.  In fact, organizations can be viewed as living systems, and it would be strange indeed were they not to develop over time.  Organizations typically move through four phases:

  • Pioneering Phase – A dynamic, intimate workplace characterized by close connections to the client and a central role for the founder
  • Rational Phase – As the organization grows, there are necessary calls for more structure, consistency, systems, predictability; (this phase is also known as the ‘Bureaucratic’ phase for obvious reasons!).  While the increased structure of the Rational phase helps the organization grow and become more effective, there are obvious downsides during this time, not least of which is the development of the “silo” mentality.
  • Integrated Phase – While organizations can continue in the rational phase for a long time, eventually the internal and external calls for coordination become strong enough to lead the organization into the Integrated phase. This phase is characterized by a renewed vision, increased self-management, and more integration of functions and teams.
  • Associative Phase – this final phase for mature organizations is fairly rare in practice. It is a phase in which the organization is open to sharing with its environment, in which it has a focus on collaboration and on challenging systems of power through strategic alliances.
A simple summary of these phases is to view them in terms of relationship:
Dependent (Pioneering)
Independent (Rational)
Interdependent (Integrated and Associative)
 I am pleased to see that a fairly accessible introduction to Lievegoed’s ideas has recently been published by an ad-hoc group calling themselves the “Barefoot Collective“.  They have published two volumes under a Creative Commons license, so you are free to download and use these resources freely!  Their website also offers a number of easy to use resources that you can use to take stock of your own organization and begin a more deliberate process of developing your effectiveness.

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