Desire paths, social networks, shadow organisations

Prompted by Scott Berkun’s recent post on thinking in desire paths, here’s a picture of a Finnish equivalent:*

Desire path at Kera station, Helsinki

Berkun makes some interesting observations on using this for feature discovery and refinement — design for flexibility, then set things up in your prototypes and early versions to record what people actually use. There are — of course — team and organisational analogues as well. Joseph Pelrine introduced me to Social Network Analysis in a project retrospective I’d asked him to run for us at Sibelius, and later at a SPA conference session. It’s a great way of holding up a mirror to a group, and revealing the real patterns of interaction amongst its members, regardless of formal roles and responsibilities.

Ralph Stacey takes this idea further, and talks about the Shadow System:

[The Shadow System] is the set of interactions among members of a legitimate organisational system that fall outside that legitimate organisational system. It comprises all social and political interactions that are outside the rules strictly prescribed by the legitimate system. It is the arena in which members of an organisation pursue their own gain, but also the arena in which they play, create, and prepare innovations. (Ralph Stacey, Creatitivy and Complexity in Organisations, p.290)

There’s an immense amount of food for thought here. According to Stacey, the degree to which this shadow system is tolerated or even encouraged by the legitimate organisation has a direct influence on the organisations creativity and resilience. On the contrary, an organisation which imposes its bureaucratic structures with the force of law stifles innovation (and in some cases, it’s the permanent and baffling acceptance of this status quo on the part of the members of that organisation that sustains this: it’s as if every single person in the company is terrified of stepping off the path. A park in which everyone “keeps off the grass” is a lifeless place).

What sort of organisation do you work in?

* The snow here is around 1.5 metres deep. The path itself is formed of compressed snow, so if you step off it, you end up in trouble: that explains its narrowness (and given that most of a trainload of people use it when the commuter train pulls in, it’s questionable whether it really is a short cut for any but the first bunch of people on the path. The fact that it was a short cut once marks and sustains its existence). Of course, when the surrounding snow melts, the path remains for a week or more as a causeway of ice!

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