Coordination Theory: the basis for working together? - RSA

Coordination Theory: the basis for working together?


  • Democracy and governance

In his fifth post for the RSA Living Change Campaign, Matthew Taylor explores some of the implications of the framework he has outlined over the last month and asks why ideas like these aren’t more widely known and used.

Over my last four blog posts, I have outlined key tenets of what I call coordination theory. This is a set of ideas drawing heavily on the work of the British anthropologist Mary Douglas and her followers, but with a marked similarity to several other ways of thinking about human motivation. In this post I will explore some of the most important implications of the theory before considering a question that has increasingly been nagging at me. Given, how often similar schemas of motivation and change recurs across a range of disciplines, is there not scope for a wider acceptance of these ideas as the basis for more multi-disciplinary and impactful social science?

My aim in writing this series of blog posts is that the ideas within them may empower anyone facing a group challenge – whether you are a team member trying resolve a problem, an organisational leader or strategist, a policy advisor or politician – to become more attuned to four types of human motivations. These types – based respectively on authority, values and belonging, individual aspiration and fatalism – are also the basis for thinking about and approaching change. Perhaps, most of all, they are ways people work together, which is why I call them ‘forms of coordination’.

The first principle of ‘coordination theory’ theory is that it is useful to think in terms of these four motivational worldviews, which we can simplify as four injunctions; ‘do what you’re told’, ‘do what is right’, ‘ do what you want’ and ‘it won’t make any difference what you do’. The second principle is that the best way to get social things done is to combine the three active motivations, while acknowledging the inevitability, and sometimes accuracy, of fatalism. If organisations can align the power of authority, of values and belonging, and of individual aspiration, they are more likely to achieve their goals. Similarly (as I evidenced in the last post), if policy combines the technocratic skills of policymakers, feels legitimate and fair to the public and goes with the grain of individual motivation it is more likely to succeed. I call these situations or interventions – where the motivations and the methods that go with them are expressed and aligned – ‘fully engaged’.

Good and bad traits

As I have said my ideas draw on the work of Mary Douglas but over the years, by applying the ideas to a range of concrete challenges, I have added some propositions of my own. One concerns the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ side of the forms. If we take individualism,  we might make a common-sense distinction between its benign expressions in the form of autonomy, self-expression or creativity and its less popular manifestations in the form of acquisitiveness, self-obsession or mindless competition. But we are unlikely to agree precisely where the divide between healthy and unhealthy individualism lies. Coordination theory offers an answer. A force is benign when its expression is compatible with the positive expression of the other forms.

Colleagues working together Here is an example. I have worked for a political party and run charities, so I have spent a lot of my life in cultures that are predominantly solidaristic. My experience in these organisations has shown that an emphasis on shared values, trust and fairness can potentially be combined with effective authority and an enlightened individualism of autonomy and personal fulfilment. In contrast, other solidaristic expression, such as resistance to change, suspicion of outgroups and rigid insistence on a particular idea of justice, are much less compatible. Similarly, while overbearing hierarchies crush creativity and can induce collective apathy, benign leadership draws on the energy of shared values and opens the space for individual autonomy and fulfilment. Fatalism too has a benign side of wisdom and realism and a malign one of pessimism and cynicism. Its strength is also a reflection of the difficulty in any context of achieving full engagement.

Experience has also taught me how difficult it is to achieve full engagement. Despite all the tools now available to leaders and policymakers, I often find myself in situations or addressing issues where change feels intractable. This begs a question. If full engagement works best – indeed it generally occurs without explicit intent or design – why is it not simply the way organisational and social matters arrange themselves? 

One reason lies in the impulse within each form of coordination to become dominant as a worldview and method of change. Although most of us would recognise in principle that a healthy society requires some balance of authority, freedom, justice, belonging and realism, in practice much more energy goes into arguing for more of whatever quality we now feel to be lacking. Champions of individualism will tend to be on the lookout for ways to enhance personal freedom or to expand the role of market and consumer choice. Hierarchical attempts to exert greater control over organisations can often be self-reinforcing as the unintended response to one rule generates the need for another. A solidaristic concern with unfairness can often turn into the idealistic but futile pursuit of perfect justice. Accurate situational fatalism can become an all-encompassing and destructive pessimism. 

Moreover, each form gains some of its power and legitimacy from critiquing the other forms. This is a recognisable characteristic of ideological arguments. In the 1960s and ‘70s the political case of the New Right was based less on the virtues of markets and unfettered capitalist accumulation and more on concerted critiques of governmental organisation, democratic choice and the very idea of social justice. Equally, on the left, the case for greater equality less often involves confronting the considerable practical challenges of egalitarianism and is more likely in terms of the failure and corruption of leaders and the inequities and selfishness of capitalism.

Immunity to change

There is another reason full engagement is unusual; although all forms are somewhere present in all situations, equilibriums can persist in which one is systematically under-valued and expressed. It saps dynamism and, ultimately, resilience but a lack of full engagement does not automatically provoke a crisis. Indeed, stability can be based on a systemic and culturally embedded rejection of certain forms of human motivation and organisation; a kind of immunity to change. A much greater proportion of human history and of our day-to-day lives has been spent in organisations and ways of life fixed in an un-dynamic equilibrium than in creative situations of full engagement.  

In these situations – what I call ‘deficit cultures’ – where one form of active coordination is not strongly expressed, there are generally to be found reformers arguing for the under-expressed form to be amplified. But because the fuller expression of any form generates a reaction in the others, change can be tricky.

I came across one example of this when asked to give a talk to some high-ranking military officers. At first, I couldn’t see how my political experience and ideas would be of much relevance to a group of highly-skilled, totally dedicated professionals used to risking their lives in dangerous situations. For all their strengths, the armed forces are classic deficit cultures; generally, very strong on hierarchical control and legitimacy, equally dependent on the solidaristic comradeship of teams of soldiers, but much less able to generate and deal with individualism. But the nature of modern conflict, particularly wars against extremist organisations often embedded in civilian communities, is changing. It is becoming more complex and unpredictable. This is inevitably requiring soldiers to show more judgement in responding to unpredictable events. But it is hard to expect the frontline to show more individual initiative without this impacting the deep cultural norms of the army. As one officer put it to me: “We have to get them ready to sometimes act without orders, or even ignore the ones they’ve been given. How can we do that without subverting the whole ethos of command?”

In both policymaking and leadership, I have often seen attempts to ‘dial up’ a weaker form of motivation, or the methods associated with it, generate unexpected and counterproductive responses. A well-known example was quoted by Stephen Levvit and Stephen Dubnar in their book Freakonomics. A nursery in Israel decided to disincentivise parents arriving late to pick up their children by fining them, but the net effect was more late parents. In essence, the hierarchical motivation of following instructions and the solidaristic one of putting the good of the school and teachers first was replaced by the individualistic opportunity to pay for the privilege of being late. On a much larger and more tragic scale, this failure to predict the systemic consequences of increasing individualistic methods helps to explain why the New Public Management strategy of commercialising public services has so completely failed to live up to the promises of its advocates. 

Finally, even when hierarchical, solidaristic and individualistic motivations are combined and aligned, changes in context can quickly upset a hard-won equilibrium. For example, the case for stronger authority, collective obedience and personal self-sacrifice is generally increased when a group is perceived to be facing crisis. Which is why autocrats often summon up fears of the enemy at the gate. Conversely, our expectation of freedom and openness to risk-taking tend to increase after periods of stability and success, something that helps to explain the recurrence of boom and bust cycles in financial trading. We have seen how the Covid-19 pandemic has created an appetite and various outlets for stronger solidaristic feeling.

Another example can be seen in the way information technology has shaped organisational and political strategy in recent decades. In the era of the main frame, computers tended to buttress the power of the organisation’s hierarchy, but as computing became personal, and with the rise of social media, technology became more empowering of individuals and informal networks. For several years, particularly around the Arab spring, it was believed that social media was fundamentally changing the dynamic of power rendering hierarchy powerless in the face of collective mobilisation and individual self-expression. Now we are seeing authoritarian regimes like Russia and China remodelling these technologies to serve authoritarian purposes.  

Achieving full engagement

Achieving and sustaining full engagement involves continuous adaptation and a certain amount of luck. It is as much art as science. Management books tend to offer one best way of doing things and guarantee to bring success. In contrast, robust research studies on change highlight complexity, power dynamics and clashing interests. Coordination theory offers a middle path, suggesting that while fully engaged solutions are the most likely to work and to be sustained, this does not mean any solution will work always or forever. The impulses within each form and the continuously shifting sands of social reality mean success is fragile. When going on a new journey most of us would prefer detailed instructions to general guidance, but if the terrain is continuously changing then a compass is more useful than a map. 

In future posts I hope to explore examples of monocultures where one form is very dominant (for example, totalitarianism as hierarchical monoculture, or investment banks before the credit crunch as individualistic monocultures), and ‘deficit cultures’ where one form is particularly weak (for example, that challenge of mobilising individualism in public services). But I want to conclude today by asking a question.

Over the last few weeks, I have described some of the many frameworks, from a range of disciplines, that recognise the existence of core human motivations and change methods clustering around three poles; first, hierarchy/authority, second, values/belonging/solidarity/connectedness and third, autonomy/individualism/competition. I have added fatalism to the mix and I have suggested that solutions and organisations are most effective when they express and align these drives. I have also described some of the dynamics involved in combinations and conflicts between them. My question is why these ideas keep being discovered afresh in new forms rather than being more widely acknowledged and applied.

Often, particularly at the conceptual level, different social science disciplines seem not even to recognise each other’s account of people and society. Large swathes of the output of economics relies on an account of human nature and decision-making that almost any psychologist would be bound to consider profoundly inaccurate and reductive. Social psychologists tend to take society as a given and focus on how individuals can be more happy and productive, while the starting point for many sociologists (I say this as one myself) is the game of ‘find the oppressor’, assuming that society can only be understood as a system in which one group exerts its self-interested power over others. Meanwhile organisational theorists and policy thinkers too often fail to acknowledge complexity or apply wider insights into human nature or social dynamics.

Overall, as the American sociologist Andrew Abbott argued in his brilliant book Chaos of Disciplines, what the defenders of social science might want to portray as the unfolding of progress of understanding the world is, in fact, a much more cyclical, indeed – according to Abbott – fractal, process. Basic divides, for example between the qualitative and quantitative, or between theories that explore functionality and those which assume conflict, recur with every new generation of thinkers.

There is a consequence of social scientists agreeing about so little and spending so much energy replaying the same arguments. Increasingly people assume that the future will be the consequence not of human choices based on shared understanding and democratic engagement but of the unstoppable march of natural science and the technological innovations that flow from it. For example, in my own specialist area – the future of work – I have frequently to push back against predictions based solely or largely on technological change. Technological determinism is not only ethically vacuous, it is also inaccurate. From climate change to the future of cities, work and even health, our future will be as much if not more the consequence of the decisions we make as individuals and collectively as of technological capacity. Yet, partly because there is so little agreement about how society can and should change, technological predictions (even though they are often widely wrong) feel more concrete and reliable.

Social scientists will always disagree about matters big and small. The reflexive nature of individual and social change (that which is changing is aware of itself and able to adapt) means that theories about people in society will never have the reliability of predictions about the behaviour of non-human phenomena. Coordination theory itself recognised the inevitability of complexity and flux. But this is no reason to abandon the hope of multidisciplinary thinking or the development of common frameworks and action. Quite the reverse; in the face of technological determinism and social pessimism (in many developed countries, including the UK people think their children will have a harder life than their parents) it is important for social scientists to search for greater agreement.

Perhaps what I call coordination theory – or the many other theories that rely on similar core concepts – may not be the basis for such as coming together. But it has important advantages, including its multi-disciplinary reference points. It also has the advantage of combining confidence that problems can be solved, and progress made, with an acknowledgement of how fragile and contested change always is. Most of all, perhaps, there is the scope to connect individual human motivations with organisational processes, social forces and even political values. At a time when political discourse can feel inauthentic and distant from our day-to-day lives, these are ideas that can help us connect debates ‘out there’ about how to make the world and its institutions better with debates ‘in here’ about how to live our best lives.

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