Organization(al) Matters

margaret-j-wheatley-905119The key challenge for Alianza Arkana as an organization is how to set up the institutional and energetic conditions in which all people who work with us – in paid positions, as volunteers, partner organizations and funders – are called to give their best, access and harness their creativity, and work out of a sense of love and service rather than duty and obligation.

This challenge requires creating an organizational structure, community and culture that fosters these conditions.

Since October 2014, Alianza Arkana has been operating as a collective. We do not have an organizational structure where any one person has formal organizational authority over any one else i.e. no-one has the power to tell anyone else what to do. If we have a boss, we sometimes say, she is Gaia.

The reasons for operating as a non-hierarchical organization are three-fold. They are: value-based; theoretical (or ideological given that no theory is value-free); and practical.

  • In terms of our values, a cornerstone of our work is partnership with our Shipibo allies and other individuals and organizations, as the name Alianza Arkana suggests. Given that genuine partnership and reciprocity are such an important part of our external-facing work, it therefore makes sense to have strong values of partnership and horizontality embodied internally within the organizational structure. As Gandhi said about individuals, which is equally applicable to organizations: ¨Be the change you want to see in the world.¨
  • Furthermore, given that many of the issues in the Peruvian Amazon that we are trying to address – deforestation, large scale-resource extraction, loss of indigenous Shipibo culture, gender inequality, the health and well-being of indigenous communities – arise within a dominant patriarchal worldview, based on control, in which humans are separate from nature and in which the white man is seen as the highest expression of evolution, we do not want to create an organizational form for our work that is a further embodiment, however enlightened, of this patriarchal worldview.
Cartoon found at:
  • Practically, too, there is much evidence from the organizational literature over time, beginning with the Hawthorne studies in the 1920’s, that, even within their own terms of delivering organizational effectiveness, traditional, pyramidal structures do not work well. (See, for example, this recent article from the Harvard Business Review entitled Hierarchy is Overrated’). They foster fear, competitiveness, political maneuvering, divisiveness, and dependency. They can be inflexible and slow to respond to changing circumstances. People at the ‘top’ often become isolated from the rest of the organization and take poor decisions through not having a sufficiently broad and more organizationally inclusive panorama.

Hierarchical forms of organization were extended into many spheres of working life by twentieth-century capitalism through the development of assembly-line manufacturing. They found theoretical justification in early organizational theories such as scientific management. These organizational forms have their underlying origin in a worldview that stems from the classical, mechanistic, scientific revolution of the sixteenth century, which continues to exercise a dominant hold on Western culture.

To cut a long story very short – a story, which is brilliantly documented by Richard Tarnas (for a good interview with him, see here) in his book The Passion of the Western Mind’ – first quantum physics, at the beginning of the twentieth century, and then chaos and complexity theory in the 1980’s and beyond, alongside the post-modern movement in philosophy, have radically exposed the limitations of the classical, rationalist, mechanistic worldview. Notions of objectivity, certainty, truth, and progress, which were the foundations of the European Enlightenment and the moral justification for colonialism, are now seen to be highly problematic.

Yet, as the American writer and management consultant, Margaret J. Wheatley, says of conventional organizations: “Each of us lives and works in organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe.”


Chaos theory and the science of complex systems that came into prominence in the 1980’s show us that the nature of living systems on every level (from a brain cell to the universe) is best understood as a self-organizing network not a mechanism, which is the dominant metaphor used in classical Newtonian physics. (For an excellent exposition of this shift in understanding from mechanism to self-organizing network, see Fritjof Capra‘s book ‘The Web of Life’).

Living systems are non-linear, in which small changes can produce huge effects (the famous ‘butterfly effect’), and are inherently unpredictable but not, chaotic or random – they are patterned.

bird patterns
Examples of birds self-organizing to form flocking patterns

Complexity science shows how order emerges out of apparent chaos. The term ‘edge of chaos’ was coined to describe how living systems co-evolve and learn. It is a paradoxical state between both order and chaos (potential disintegration) where complexity is maximized.

It is at the ‘edge of chaos’ where living systems can be most flexible, adaptable and creative – and also unpredictable. As individuals, when we experience this state, we give it names like ‘being in the zone’ or ‘going with the flow’. We are simultanously focussed and receptive.

Working in genuinely non-hierarchical organizations, such as Alianza Arkana, in which order is allowed to emerge rather than being imposed top-down, brings people face-to-face with the lived experience of organizational life at ‘the edge of chaos’. It is not comfortable at times; it is often frustrating; decisions appear to be clear and then become unclear and need to be retaken; everything is constantly under negotiation: there is no stability in terms of obvious structure.

Image found here:

This is no easy ride. Roles are more demanding. If there is no one person taking on and assuming the traditional role of chief executive, it requires that everyone step up to this role i.e. that everyone has an understanding of the organization as a whole and carries out their particular area of work in this overall context, with an appreciation of the interconnections involved.

On the other hand, the advantages are that:

Brian, Marcos, Orestes & AnnaAntonia India & Carlijn

  • People have much more room to take initiatives and express their ideas, as there is no-one in a formal, hierarchical structure who always has to give approval.
  • ‘Violence’ is eliminated, in the sense that Gerard Endenburg, one of the originators of sociocracy, (which is consensus decision-making as a form of organizational governance), refers to: “Uncontrollable ‘power over’ (or ‘dominance’) interests me because it is akin to the concept of   negation. Negating or ignoring someone’s existence is the ultimate form of violence.”
  • Everything that people do is through their own will, commitment, and hopefully joy, because people cannot be compelled to do something through the exercise of hierarchical power. When I showed the draft of this blog to a collegaue she commented:

“Its the joy of working just because you love what you do. Nobody is telling you to do it. Nobody is paying  you to do it (in realistic day/hourly rates). You are completely away from monetising your time. In our ‘normal worlds’ in the West, we are used to breaking everything down to money. For me, I have found creative, self employed work for most of my life. In the end this still comes a lot down to managing things in terms of money. Sometimes more personal things such as giving time to creative friendships, relationships, giving time to ideas and creativity. You have to weigh these things up against money because essentially you are, or could be, always at work.

Here, I have enough to live off, and a roof over my head, and the time and space to work from a place of passion. To really go deeply into this, not just a hobby or a thing on the side. True, it cannot be sustained, and it is made possible because we come from richer countries to a poorer country but I think it is something that people in our world should all do for a period of time. To have your bases covered, and to find out how much desire to work, care for the tasks in hand, sacrifice and drive comes purely because you care deeply for what you are doing.”

  • Better decisions get made because everyone is involved and different voices are acknowledged, with the consequence that everyone is then committed to those decisions.
  • Perhaps most significantly, there is a flowering of creativity.

Working this way can be a messy, uncertain and emotional roller-coaster but, similar to biological processes like composting and evolution, what emerges at the end is often unexpected, innovative and spectacularly beautiful.

Photo from recent workshop using animation to highlight issues in the lives of young Shipibo. See:


Animation made by young people from Bena Jema about production of handicrafts



Mural co-created between children of Santa Clara and two AA volunteers. For more info see:

Post written by Dr Paul Roberts, Intercultural Education Director, AlianzaArkana