The Shape of Civilization
Human coordination shapes civilization. To understand how the world works, look at organizations.
Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Our ultimate goal is to understand the critical role of citizenship in a free and flourishing civilization (Part 3). To do that, we need to understand government as an organization (Part 2). To do that, we need to understand organizations in general (Part 1 - you are here).
It’s Orgs All the Way Down
What does civilization look like? The fashionable pessimists will tell you it’s shaped by the extractive engine of greedy corporations. Or the decaying thumb of incompetent governments. Or the shadowy orchestration of unaccountable nonprofits. Maybe. Though the truth is rarely so simple.
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In any case, there’s a group of people out there doing something you don’t like, and this is the key insight. To see the shape of civilization, we need to see through the lens of human coordination, meaning organizations. We’ll use an intuitive definition of organization: a group of people coordinating to accomplish a goal.
In his writing on the importance of organizations, Samo Burja argues that individuals become powerful through their ability to coordinate other humans, and that powerful organizations set the contours of civilization. In fact, he claims that civilization can be thought of as an ecosystem of organizations. This is not inherently good or bad; humans regularly coordinate to do both. Indeed, effective organizations solve hard problems for themselves, other organizations, and broader communities.
Yet for all their importance, we’re not that good at them. Effective organizations are hard to start and they die easily. We can’t seem to copy the ones that work well, and when they aren’t working, we have a hard time explaining why. This is perhaps because organizations are among our most complex creations, and complexity is hard! But as I previously wrote, we need to get better. The hard work of improving human coordination begins with a clearer way to talk about organizations.
Getting Organized: Four Important Questions
To better understand orgs we need to gather the right tools. We can start our organizational analysis by asking four important questions:
What is this thing supposed to do?
This seems like it should be obvious, but we often get so used to what orgs are doing that we gradually lose sight of what they’re supposed to be doing. This is especially true for organizations that have been around a long time.
Who is in charge?
These are the leaders you can see at the top of the org chart.
Who actually has authority?
In theory this should be the same as who is in charge but this is not always true. It’s important to differentiate between the two.
How well is it doing what it’s supposed to do?
We need to evaluate how well the whole thing is working and, crucially, explain why.
Once we can answer these questions, our conversation will be much more rigorous than “government bad” and much more productive. And even if you won’t put your pitchfork away, you’ll know exactly where to poke. Either way, answering these questions requires a good model of organization. For our purposes, I propose that organizations have three structural components and four functions.1 Up first, structure.
Organization Structure - What are orgs made of?
Purpose: The goal of the coordinating group of people; what the organization is supposed to accomplish. For legal and legibility reasons, this is almost always documented in the org’s founding documents.2 Consider a government’s constitution or corporate bylaws.
Agents: People with agency, meaning people with decision-making authority and responsibility.3 Their chief responsibility is ensuring that the organization fulfills its purpose. These are the elected officials in governments and board members/executives in corporations. The founding documents which describe the org purpose also usually describe some of the most important agents, like how the Constitution defines the President and Congress.
Bureaucracies: Proceduralized and automated work processes. This is the operational/administrative “machinery” following orders with little agency. The humans who do this work are bureaucrats, and they staff the departments under the management of agents.4
Organization Function - What do orgs do?
Receive Inputs: Taking things in from the world (external to internal) which are used to produce outputs and also to run the organization. Resources like dollars, information, and computer chips might eventually be turned into outputs, while resources like people (agents + bureaucrats) or ticket management software help run the org.
Coordination: The internal configuration of org structures (agents + bureaucracies) and how they interact with each other. Coordination is the process of arranging these entities into some sort of hierarchy and establishing the relationships between them. These decisions determine where agency is allocated within the org.
Some coordination decisions are usually captured in the foundational documents describing the org purpose. These are typically more static and cover the most powerful elements of the org, like the Constitution describing the functional relationship between the President and Congress. The more dynamic coordination activities are performed by the agents. This is the management level, where agents coordinate the interactions between the org elements they have authority over. Consider a government official creating a task force which assumes authority over two underperforming departments (bureaucracies).
Operation: Internal work processes turning inputs into outputs; this is the operational level. In most orgs these processes are standardized and therefore part of the bureaucracy. Agents create/modify/delete work processes, meaning they modify bureaucracies. These bureaucracies then implement the work processes under the oversight of agents. They are the gears in the proverbial machine. Think of assembly line work and standard operating procedures. Who doesn’t love a little documentation?
Export Outputs: Putting stuff out into the world (internal to external). These are goods and services like a company selling phones or a government providing health care.
Sharpening the Tools
So organizations have three structures (purpose, agents, bureaucracies) and four functions (inputs, coordination, operation, outputs). With this model of organization in mind, we can now revisit the four essential org questions. This time, we can be more specific about what we’re asking, and we can use a simple checklist to identify which org elements will help us find the answers.
Organization analysis questions using a simple model of organization:
What is this thing supposed to do? What is the purpose?
Don’t confuse the current output for organizational purpose. Once we’ve identified the org purpose we can be very clear about what the organization is supposed to be doing. This helps anchor the rest of our analysis by giving us something to compare against. As we examine other parts of the organization, we can consider how well they align with the org purpose.
Who is in charge? Who are the agents?
We need to know who the agents are. Remember, the most powerful agents are likely defined in the org’s founding documents. We might also need to consider inputs - where do the agents come from?
Who actually has authority? How is agency allocated?
Structure: Agents, Bureaucracies
Not all agents have the same amount of agency (authority and responsibility). In other words, the org chart doesn’t always tell the full story. Agency is allocated according to some combination of rules set out in the foundational documents, and how the agents coordinate other elements of the org which they have authority over.
How well is it doing what it’s supposed to do? How is agency being used?
Structure: Purpose, Agents, Bureaucracies
Function: Inputs, Operation, Outputs
We can start by comparing the organization’s outputs to its purpose to evaluate how well it’s performing. By looking at inputs and operations, we can trace the flow of resources into the system and see how they get turned into outputs. If it’s not doing what we want or expect, we can investigate the competence of agents in managing operations in the bureaucracies. Keep in mind that this could uncover higher level problems with coordination too.5
Even if they’re not agents according to the organizational definition, all humans have some degree of agency. This means that even “automated” processes in the bureaucracy which are implemented by humans have some amount of discretion involved. This could be as simple as a bureaucrat deciding which of two equivalent applications to process first. This is important to keep in mind when analyzing operations.
As I wrote previously, if you can’t answer these questions, you’re basically just vibing and sadly vibes do not build civilizations. We will apply this framework to take a close look at government, but before we move on to Part 2, we need to consider how organizations scale.
The organizations with the most significant and most enduring influence on the shape of civilization also tend to be those operating at the greatest scale. Consider the Church, Fortune 500 companies, and of course our favorite type of organization - government. These are institutions: the largest and most powerful organizations, operating at the largest scales.
Institutions share common challenges and common features. One such feature is that institutions tend to have a relatively low ratio of agents to bureaucracies. This is because scaling organizations (aka coordinating more humans) is very difficult. To deal with increasing complexity in a growing organization, agents standardize, proceduralize, and automate work processes. According to our definition, this means they implement and expand bureaucracies. We can visualize the difference like this:
The process of bureaucratization is consistent across the spectrum of scale: as organizations grow, the proportion of agents:bureaucracies decreases.6 The specific threshold for “institution” is unimportant, what we’re after is a heuristic for organizational structure across scales, and an intuition for the most influential class of organizations.
We will have much more to say about institutions, but it’s important to note that institutions are fractal. As organizations scale and bureaucracies expand, hierarchies emerge nesting agents and bureaucracies inside of larger elements. Luckily, our framework allows us to think about these structures at any scale.
Using the Tools
To close Part 1, let’s recap. People coordinate via organizations to accomplish particular goals. Civilization is shaped by the rich complexity of their actions and interactions. Therefore, to understand the world we need to understand organizations. Institutions are a particularly influential kind of organization because they tend to operate at the largest scales. We can start analyzing organizations of all types by asking four important questions. To answer them, we need to know what organizations are made of and what they do. Simple!
These are tools for organizational literacy. They will let us see the structure of civilization more clearly, and in time, perhaps help steer it toward flourishing. Now onward to Part 2, where we will use these tools to get serious about government.
Purpose is less tangible than agents or bureaucracies but just as important to structure. This is because the purpose comes first and all other aspects of an organization are downstream. If the org changes or loses a clear purpose, all other structures and functions are subject to change.
For now only humans are agents, but what happens when AI becomes truly agentic? 👀
We tend to use “bureaucracy” negatively to mean complicated and inefficient. That is often true, but we mean something more general here.
Of course we’re here because our orgs usually aren’t doing what we want, so this will be particularly important!