2 months, 2 days ago

Autonomy and Cohesion

Link: https://www.strategicstructures.com/?p=2745

The viability and welfare of socio-technical systems depend on their ability to balance autonomy and cohesion.

Is that true for other systems? Yes, it is remarkably universal. It works for biological systems like bacteria or elephants and social systems like packs of wolves, termites or beehives. However, this series focuses on socio-technical systems such as organizations, governments, and networks.

Autonomy brings adaptability and short-term effectiveness.

Cohesion brings efficiency and long-term effectiveness.

In viable systems, the balance between autonomy and cohesion is well maintained at all levels. And they have a way to restore it when it is disturbed.

Thinking in terms of dynamics of essential balances, one of which is that between autonomy and cohesion, has benefits over the usual dilemmas such as centralized/decentralized, hierarchical/flat, waterfall/agile and suchlike. If you are curious, you may watch this webinar for a bit more details or check out the book for an in-depth exploration. In the following series of articles, I’ll expand on topics only briefly mentioned in the book, such as the way the balance works outside organizations, how different systems differ by the way in which cohesion is achieved, and how some cohesion technologies achieve cohesion without reducing autonomy. Then, I’ll move on to decentralization and other topics. But we need to cover the basics first, which is what this and the next article will do.

What is meant by the balance between autonomy and cohesion, and how does it work?

The autonomy-cohesion balance is an invitation to see familiar phenomena in a new way and, if useful, to make it a thinking habit. Seeing things in a new way would require a new vocabulary or re-use of an existing one with a slight shift in meaning. I chose the latter. The next section will clarify that. It will be followed by an explanation of how the balance works. We’ll continue next week with an overview of the cohesion forces and some tools, technologies, and artifacts that bring cohesion or influence the balance in other ways.


Autonomy is the capacity to make informed, uncoerced decisions. It originally meant self-governance, and that meaning hasn’t changed much through the centuries.

Cohesion is an act or state of sticking together. It is about forming a unity. It’s borrowed from physics, but in the context of this balance, its meaning is broader. It doesn’t only mean forming unity but also having the ability to work together to achieve a common goal or individual goals in a shared space. That dynamic aspect is commonly referred to as coordination.

Apart from physics, cohesion is also used in linguistics. There, it is easy to demonstrate its relation to a similar term, coherence.

Consider the following sentence:

“The sun melted the snow. Birds sing. Honey is sweet.”

Each sentence follows the grammar rules and is well-formed. There is cohesion. However, there’s no coherence because the ideas don’t logically connect or follow a unified theme. And now this:

“In ancient Rome, gladiators fought bravely, often lions they faced. Arenas, big, thousands watched.”

The content is coherent; it’s all about ancient Roman gladiators and their arena fights. However, the sentences lack cohesion due to disjointed syntax and incomplete phrases.

We are quite used to reading text that is both cohesive and coherent, so the next example is probably unnecessary:

“The library was quiet, a perfect place for studying. Students were scattered around, focused on their books. The soft rustle of pages mingled with the occasional tapping of a keyboard.”

In the Autonomy-Cohesion balance, you can think of cohesion as a generic concept, shifting its meaning from cohesion to coherence or using it only in one sense, depending on the context. Another way of thinking about it is by degrees of cohesion, from making a whole (physics), through the whole being well-formed (cohesion in linguistics), to the whole making sense (coherence in linguistics), which translated for systems can mean functioning well, being viable, and resilient. In the ideal case, not only is the whole system doing well, but all its sub-systems and agents and the environment.

All this may beg for an explanation about doing well, agency, and environment and, because of them, further for individuality, function, purpose, and sense-making. I’ll resist the temptation now and will probably do that in separate articles.

The Balance

A system within which the sub-systems and other components don’t have enough autonomy is not effective, adaptive, and resilient. But if there is no cohesion, the system will not be efficient. The welfare will be short-term or only for some sub-systems at the price of the long-term viability of the whole. In the case of extreme autonomy, the system will disintegrate. It will no longer exist as such.

In viable systems, the balance between autonomy and cohesion is well maintained. And the balance is maintained at all scales. Autonomy at one level needs cohesion at the lower. Otherwise, what is it that has autonomy?

Autonomy – Cohesion balance
Autonomy and Cohesion in balance. Some think that the tube on the right side contains glue. Others think it is lubricant. Both are right.

Even simple tasks, when beyond the capabilities of a single person, will require some form of coordination. For example, one person is not able to move a heavy table alone. She needs help. If three others come to give a hand, there is a potential capacity to achieve this goal. But capacity is not enough. They need to synchronize their movement in time and space. They need to lift it together at the same moment and move it in the same direction towards where the table should go.

We are used to this kind of coordination and don’t think much of it. We are habituated to expecting a signal and responding to it in sync. That’s the case from ancient times. Breaking a gate with a battering ram, rowing in a galley ship, or lifting a heavy sail would all require signaling and continuous coordination.

Cohesion brings constrains. To support a common goal, you must cede some autonomy. Move in a particular direction than the one you might prefer and do it at an agreed moment in time rather than any other moments you might rather choose. That is for a temporary task. For a more continuous commitment, such as working for an organization, you might need to lose other freedoms. Typically, these are the choices about where to be, what to do, and how to do it. Notably, new forms of organizing work and participating in the economy try to find new ways to achieve cohesion without sacrificing so much freedom as in the traditional model with its factories and offices.

When there is too much cohesion or of such kind that leaves insufficient autonomy, systems exhibit lower effectiveness and adaptability. One manifestation is the capacity problem. In organizations, for example, the more time is spent on meetings, planning, reporting, and such, the less time is available for core activities. Often, new tasks come up during meetings, or new constraints are revealed, making the core work time, already reduced by the meeting, even more insufficient. Next is the decision pathology, where a course of action is constrained by a chain of decisions; an older decision is what brought the current power asymmetry, and the newer one requires an inadequate course of action due to the fact the decision-maker is far away from the operational reality, lucks expertise or is simply micromanaging. Over-constrained organizations suffocate innovation and fail to adapt to changes in their environment.

What happens when there is too much autonomy? In organizations, if the subsystem having too much autonomy are departments, that would typically result in silos and fiefdoms. They are fortified by reporting arrangements and budget allocations. Another way to view such a pattern is cohesion asymmetry: the cohesion within the departments is stronger than the cohesion between departments. Zooming in, too much autonomy at a personal level can qualify somebody anywhere between “sometimes unreliable” and a “loose cannon.” Zooming out, too much autonomy in markets leads to exploitive labor practices, income inequality, insider trading, monopoly, environmental exploitation, and financial instability due to excessive risk-taking. The usual reaction to all these effects is one: better regulation or worse, just more regulation. While this is a proven cohesion method, it also shows a chronic lack of imagination.

Too much autonomy is not the only reason a society can lose cohesion. It can be due to polarisation, as is the case with the US and elsewhere nowadays. To study such a phenomenon, the balance between autonomy and cohesion is insufficient. We also need to balance stability and diversity.

The balance between autonomy and cohesion is relative. It depends on the culture, situations and type of system. A balanced system in individualistic cultures like the US and Australia will look way too unbalanced towards autonomy for socio-centric societies like Japan and India. In the same culture, the balance will look different in stable times and in times of crisis. For example, during the pandemic, people were more willing to forgo certain freedoms to get more protection. And last, it depends on the type of the system. The situation that would look too unbalanced towards autonomy for an infantry soldier may be way too restrictive for a paratrooper.

We are now halfway through the basics, which will be fully covered in the next article, where I’ll go briefly through some cohesion forces, tools, technologies, and artifacts.


First published on Link&Think