The Human Organization Explained

With this post, I’d like to provide a long overdue and probably necessary explanation of the Human Organization Map, at least for those trying to get inspiration or to apply it. 

Over the last few years, I’ve been further developing and validating my initial work with client organisations and partners as a support to address evolution needs such as:

  • Prioritising existing and future initiatives to pragmatically advance organization design and structures based on business drivers. 
  • Validating and comparing organization design frameworks against the specific culture, readiness and aspirations of each organization, more than the shiny statements each solution provides on its website.
  • Deepening the exploration of success stories and case studies in a more analytical and comparable way..
  • Devising transformation programmes that could holistically look at the individual, team, organization and space level, without forgetting the interrelations among them (i.e. the individual and the organization but also one dimension and the other, for example Reason Why and Ownership).
  • Demonstrating how a long-term, radical and scalable evolution can happen through an iterative, business driven, non-threatening and highly effective journey of concurrent change seeds.
  • Supporting reflections about how to mix and match more than one framework (e.g. Sociocracy and Steward Ownership or Slicing Pie), to cover the full spectrum of needs organisations have in real life.
  • Checking the comprehensiveness of a single initiative and connecting it to other programs a company may have in place.

In doing so, I’ve had the chance to better formalise the meaning of every aspect of the framework and to create supporting tools (e.g canvases and mapping of case studies / inspirational practices for each dimension) for running workshops through it. Today I’ll share the first part of this work.

A new visual format

First of all there is a new, more concise, readable and actionable visualisation of the Human Organization Map:

Levels (space, individual, team and organization) are now clearly visible. For each dimension (e.g collaboration or people development), the two extremes of the polarity (e.g. siloed organizational entities and digital peer-to-peer exchanges for collaboration) can be visualised on top of the dimension itself (the darker arrow within the hexagon). The meaning of the dimension can be added right under the name. All of it can be used as a canvas to support exploration, brainstorming, prioritisation and other group activities.

Considerations on the 4 levels of the map

While at least to those already involved with new organizational frameworks most of the dimensions of the Human Organization Map could have sound quite familiar since the beginning, I quickly realised a more precise explanation of my own interpretations of them and of the two extremes of each polarity could have been helpful when concretely applying the Map to and with real organisations.

What do we exactly mean by Collaboration or Strategy? How are Authority and Decision Making different? How does a firm with advanced forms of strategy making look like? Where to start for using the map to assess existing frameworks or experiences?

Well, my answers are now available below, one dimension at a time, with additional notes when things may seem less obvious. Feel free to just use the tables as references or to go through the entire post, in case you may want to hear more.

A few overall comments, assumptions and warnings:

  • Dimensions are neutral: each dimension should be relevant and apply to any organization, regardless of the sector, the nature (for profit, no profit, cooperative, etc), the size, the value chain, etc. They bring no judgement. The relevant question for dimensions is only if a specific organization or framework is addressing them or not.
  • Polarities express a worldview: in line with spiral dynamics and Clare Graves work on ECLET, the two extremes of each dimension are directly connected both to my expectations (of what organisations exist for and how they operate to achieve their goals) and the current maturity of the market. This is a biased, moving window. More advanced practices and ideas will surely emerge in the future on the right hand side. What you find now is, at the best of my knowledge, in line or a step ahead in respect to what advanced organisations in the world are practicing.
  • Dimensions and levels are not independent: it is evident how, in a human complex adaptive system (what every group of people really is), there is no way to surgically act only on a single dimension. Every perturbation propagates in a hardly predictable way to most or all of the dimensions. The map is thus not meant to artificially separate and focus on the parts, but to stimulate holistic reasoning on the interdependent whole. Imagine having (yet invisible) rubber bands connecting the current state across dimensions.
  • Organizational identity is what we are exploring: every component (grouping of people, practice, technology, policy, behaviour, belief, subcultures, etc.) may potentially fall at different positions along the same dimension. Still we can imagine the overall organization to roughly possess an emergent but coherent identity of its own. This identity pulls and attracts, like a gravitational field, individual practices and behaviours in one direction or the other.  
  • Dimensions are in flux: both my and the market understanding of the challenge is in constant flow. New dimensions may be added in the future to better distinguish between some aspects or to cover dynamics I hadn’t noticed before. Actually this has already happened, as you may see by carefully comparing the hexagons at the Team Level now and in the old version of the Map.
  • One level for each dimension: every dimension (e.g incentivation) is now associated to only one level (e.g. individual), both in order to make the map easier to read and to align it to current reality. Each level is historically the domain of specific consulting players (e.g. those acting on strategy vs people development) but also of different corporate functions (e.g The Board vs HR). In an attempt to have a more actionable tool, this distinction has been clarified but, again, with the aim to look at the bigger, cross-functional picture and welcome multistakeholder collaboration more than fragmentation.

The organizational level

A full explanation of all the dimensions and polarities at the organizational level is provided in the table below:

Only some minor evolutions happened at this level:

  • The importance of shareholder value, in addition to profit, has been highlighted into the Reason Why dimension. Shareholders leave space to an ecosystem of stakeholders that steward a dynamic, evolutionary purpose
    at the other extreme of this polarity.
  • Traditional strategy making has been described as a search for competitive advantage (in line with Michael Porter’s ideas), considering scalable efficiency (inspired by John Hagel, what I had in the previous version of the Map) only one of the enablers for obtaining it.
  • Value creation is the main link between the organization and the world. Here a siloed approach (left hand extreme in the previous version of the Map) has been replaced by unidirectional value creation to better capture one-sided, linear supply-chain models (again inspired by Michael Porter). Networks, platforms and ecosystems are the other extreme.
  • Information visibility has now been classified within this level for its systemic impact on the organization and its external environment. It includes practices such as open book management and transparent salaries. The amount of transparency has impacts at least on strategy, decision making, management style.

The team level

Together with the additional details describing the meaning of each dimension, the two extremes for each polarity and my definition of them, at this level of the Map a new item has been added and an existing one modified.

Let’s start from the definitions that you can find below:

In the previous version of the map, “Power Distribution” was a dimension whose values went from “centralised authority” to “autonomy & decision making”. I struggled to make my mind about it for a while to then realise that, two distinct aspects were conflated in the materials shared by most thinkers and authors: authority and decision making.

In Culture Map, Erin Meyers offers eight scales (derived from academic research and thousands of first hand interviews) to describe how management behaviours vary and often clash in situation where cultural differences are impacting on day-to-day collaboration. Among them, leading is “the degree of respect and deference shown to authority figures, placing countries on a spectrum from egalitarian to hierarchical“, while deciding is “the degree to which a culture is consensus-minded“. What I find particularly revealing in Erin’s work is how:

We often assume that the most egalitarian cultures will also be the most democratic, while the most hierarchical ones will allow the boss to make unilateral decisions. This isn’t always the case.

Building on the research from Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede and Wharton School professor Robert House, Culture Map shows how, for example, German culture tends to be more hierarchical than the American one and yet Americans are more likely to search for group agreement while reaching decisions or how Japanese culture is both very hierarchical and based on consensus.

To capture this, I’ve decided to split the original Power Distribution dimension into two new ones: Power Distance (referring to Hofstede’s work), meant as the acceptance of more or less egalitarian power distribution schemes and Decision Making, referring to the level of centralisation and consensuality in decisions. I will write another post regarding how these last two properties play out independently in collaborative decision making.

No major variations have been introduced on the other dimensions of this level, but a couple of notes may be helpful:

  • The Sensing, Experimenting and Adapting extreme in the Planning dimension represents the operational (or how to apply it in practice) counterpart of the Agility and Dynamic Steering extreme in the Strategy dimension of the organizational level.
  • The Management Style dimension is where all the self-management practices are evaluated. Total supervision means micro-management. Trust and Values Based Management represent full operational autonomy for the team, alignment through values and a new role for the manager.
  • Note how self-organization is instead not included here but in Organizational Structure dimension at the organizational level.
  • Work Allocation is indeed connected to self-organization, not at the level of organizational structure (meaning relationships between teams / groups / functions) but within the same group of people (who is taking which role in the group). More consensual forms of decision making (for example consent-based selections for roles in Sociocracy or the Role Advice Process from Fitzii) are used to achieve open allocation.
  • Collaboration is not a new topic, as the use of digital tools to facilitate internal connection, communication, co-creation and crowdsourced innovation has been available for more than 15 years (this very blog has been focused on it since 2007). Still technology is the critical enabler for connecting distributed teams in many modern work environments such as Buurtzorg. What is changing now is the removal of the organizational barriers (all the other dimensions in the Map) that severely limited the benefits an organization could derive from peer-to-peer collaboration (think about informational visibility or incentivation) in the past.

As you can appreciate, dependencies among multiple dimensions begin to clearly surface and should be considered when using the Map for assessments or organizational design.

The individual level

As seen from evaluating the ability of Holacracy and Sociocracy to cover the map, this level is where most new organizational frameworks have less to bring.

They may implicitly suggest valuable principles, but a clear, explicit contribution in terms of how to evolve the current way of incentivasing employees, protecting fairness, facilitating self-expression, improving people development and rethinking ownership is usually demanded to other more vertical approaches or to the ingenuity of the single firm.

Integrating aspects for a meaning and purposeful realisation, actively dismantling any sign of difference due to the hierarchy, protecting psychological safety, considering personal and professional development as a central mandate for the organization, changing the by-laws to legally share the ownership with all the stakeholders seems more prevalent in some experiences from the field or in less known models than at the forefront of current organization design practices.

Future looking ownership and incorporation practices are a particularly hot area in which ideas such as steward ownership, for-purpose enterprises, perpetual purpose trusts, worker cooperatives, fairshares, bcorps and benefit corporations offer a continuum of options for rethinking the same formal agreements on which firms are running.

The space level

Only one clarification is worth to be mention at this last level: its focus is not so much either on physical spaces or on digital ones. Forcing people to work from home during the COVID infection is not a strategy or a future-proof workplace design.

What new practices express is a fundamentally different mindset of releasing control, introducing new outcomes and trust-based levers for coordination (other than constantly controlling who is at work from your desk), learning remote-first behaviours and competencies, making the necessary digital technology available for each individual to freely define the best combination of synchronous vs asynchronous, co-located vs distributed, online vs offline solutions for collaboration, without negative consequences for him/herself and for the team.


Alignment has to be recognised with and tribute has to be given to the Corporate Rebels and to The Ready. Their posts and books highlighted relevant dimensions and / or polarities at the base of organizational design efforts.

Still my own exploration of hundreds of frameworks, reflections and experiences (mine or from the field), showed me an even richer, more nuanced and, in some aspect, divergent picture than those already available. In the last few months, Cocoon Pro has been part of this journey as a source of inspiration and a reminder about the complex adaptive nature of all human systems.

Such considerations convinced me to build a framework meant to be used as a working aid in real world applications, even at the cost of a lengthier and less concise visualisation. I hope the additional information provided with this post will spark reactions, comments, experiments, feedback.

Is the framework done? I really don’t believe so. I’m offering it again as an unpolished, incomplete, biased tool for the community to explore, play with, apply and learn.

I would be grateful to know about any use you will decide to make of it and ideas for furthering developing it.

Emanuele Quintarelli

Entrepreneur and Org Emergineer at Cocoon Projects | Associate Partner at Peoplerise | LSP and Holacracy Facilitator

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