Harmonic Order

The seeming untidiness of a resilient system which has been allowed to develop diverse and appropriate responses to local detail.

Small groups do not need orderly structures of organisation with a manager at the top. Larger groups do—unless they are subdivided into small groups or holons working to a common purpose and building up their own competence.

One of the reasons why managing a large organisation is difficult is that it is hard to see what is going on. Managements therefore turn to the next best thing, which is summary data. Statistics make work visible. The result is that managements can seem to be remarkably well-informed. Unfortunately, it tends to be about the wrong things. The focus is on such measures as . . .


Volume . . .

This is the obvious statistic: the number of boxes going out the door, the number of cabbages produced, patients treated, A-grades awarded:

When I arrive in a service center, I generally find managers know everything about volumes and activity, but little or nothing about the real nature of work. . . . I have yet to find a British government-inspired specification that is based on knowledge. They are all based on opinion. The implementation of these opinions makes performance worse, not better.

~ John Seddon (management consultant), Freedom from Command and Control, 2003.H7


Budgets . . .

These are well-defended by the Slippery Slope, aggressively applied, “Are you telling me that you don’t need a budget?”:

There was a shift in culture and priorities in the MoD [Ministry of Defence] towards “business” and financial targets, at the expense of functional values such as safety and airworthiness.

~ Charles Haddon-Cave, QC, presenting the conclusions of the inquiry into the Royal Air Force (RAF) Nimrod air crash, 2009.H8

In the days of the RAF chief engineer in the 1990s, you had to be on top of airworthiness. By 2004 you had to be on top of your budget if you wanted to get ahead.

~ A former RAF officer, giving evidence to the same inquiry.H9


Text . . .

Here imagination and the critical practice of learning as you go are ruled out by the controlling presence of the written report:

It is telling that, almost without exception, whenever we have applied for funding from statutory agencies, we have felt there to be no interest or desire to get really involved and connected; no thought of getting properly engaged and forging a relationship with us and our community. It has all been about the written word.

~ Andrew Mawson, The Social Entrepreneur.H10


Standardisation . . .

The 1870 Education Act in Britain established the new Boards of Education, which in turn set up state-funded primary schools, ending the comprehensive and diverse system of paid-for and charitably-funded schools that already existed. One of the inspectors of the new schools in Lambeth observed what
happened . . .H11

A consequence of this reform which is clearly to be regretted is the disappearance of different and interesting types of school, adapted to the varied social requirements and religious convictions of different classes.H12


Control . . .

The 1943 Labour Party report which exposed the failures of health provision in the United Kingdom thought the existing health services looked disorderly. It found no problems of waiting lists, quality, hygiene, innovation, staffing or management, and it recognised the role of health insurance and of arrangements which assured access to treatment whether the patent could pay for it or not. What it did find, and deplored, however, was (to let the paper speak for itself):

• No one is in a position to make or direct a coherent plan of health services for the nation as a whole;

• It does not allow the Ministry of Health to exercise a control wide enough to ensure an energetic, comprehensive, National Service for Health;

• The general public lacks the knowledge for appraising the quality of [the general practitioner’s] service and his efficiency is not in fact subject to an adequate public control. If he has a manner which ingratiates him with his clients, he can retain and even increase his practice, even though his technical competence may be very low;

• The agencies dealing with maternity in London are numerous and uncoordinated;

• The hospital system is an unplanned medley of public and voluntary institutions, without any unified control, in contrast with the army:

• Just as the Ministry of War directs the strategic placing of the Home Forces for defence against invasion, so this Central Authority should be able to plan the strategic disposition of the nation’s defences against ill-health.H13


Yes, it seems to have been something to do with control. Diversity—a flow of hands-on originality, combined with universal access to a resilient, self-regulating system — was not to be tolerated, for top-down colonising government distrusts decentralised incremental achievement. Diversity must be destroyed. Order must be imposed. Fortunately, we have Dr. Max Gammon on hand to explain to us why this is a mistake:

It is of the first importance not to confuse bureaucracy with orderly administration. The difference between ordered (in the sense of according to the compulsion of commands), and orderly (in the sense of according to harmonic order) is crucial here.H14

What is lacking in all these perspectives is the essential asset of presence — of engaging with actual circumstances and objectives, rather than imposing some other set of preoccupations. Presence does not require; it evolves; it moves by incremental advance in response to real events; it does not impose top-down order; it learns, it discovers and tests as it goes. Its accomplishment, Gammon continues, is harmonic order—where . . .

. . . continuous ad hoc procedural adjustments are made on personal initiative rather than imposed by remote directive. If successful, these local adjustments are likely to be more generally adopted. If unsuccessful, they are usually eliminated without widespread damage. The efficient non-bureaucratic organisation has a Darwinian internal economy involving a process of natural selection and survival of the fittest procedures. . . . An essential component—the motor—of such systems is the dependence of their survival on their performance.H15

From the top-down perspective, harmonic order is an incoherent, unplanned, uncontrolled, uncoordinated medley, lacking unified control. It dismays those unfamiliar with it. It is open to surprise. It makes space for the competent. It copes with detail. It is rooted in trust. It is balanced by humour. It is guided by intention.


Related entries:

Commons, Presence, Anarchism.


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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