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The pyramid and the wheel
Johan Galtung defined two structures for human interaction: thin-and-big (the pyramid) or thick-and-small (the wheel). Which describes your organization? And is it the right one?
You think because you understand “one” you must also understand “two,” because one and one make two. But you must also understand “and.”
When someone asks about the “structure” of your arts organization, how do you respond? Do you describe the organizational chart of boxes, lines, and reporting relationships? Do you tell them about concentric circles of community, staff, and board (with any one of those groups at the center)? Do you stare at them blankly?
“Structure,” according to the Oxford American Dictionary, is “the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex.” Arts organizations can certainly be complex. So you would expect an infinite number of ways to answer the question.
But sociologist Johan Galtung would disagree. He argues that there are essentially two modes of “human interaction structures,” including organizations: the pyramid and the wheel.
The pyramid is “thin-and-big” – with “thin” describing the interpersonal relationships (based on broad and categorical attributes like role or job title) and “big” determined by the number of people involved. Structures become big when they surpass an average individual’s cognitive limit for stable social relationships (according to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, around 100 to 150 people).
The wheel is “thick-and-small” – with “thick” relationships based on specific, individual, and personal connections and “small” numbers of people in the collective (again, in relation to Dunbar’s Number).
Throughout history, according to Galtung, the pyramid has been the dominant mode for “three pillars of society, State, Capital and Civil Society, in the form of huge bureaucracies (including armies and universities), corporations, and people organizations.” The wheel has been dominant in “kinship and friendship, vicinity (also community) and affinity, workship (also school) and worship.”
Wheels can and do exist within pyramids, in tight-knit working teams or advocacy/action groups. But for the most part, pyramids don’t like wheels as they interfere with efficiency and control. Says Galtung:
[Pyramids] requires full attention, because the jobs provided by [pyramids] are full time jobs, and because the occupants of [pyramid] positions are not supposed to think [wheel] thoughts. Some [wheel] structures have to go, starting with such old work structures as extended families and traditional villages.
In a pyramid, you can swap different people into the same role (marketing director, development associate, board member) without much disruption because the thin relationships favor categories over individuals. The pyramid structure also expects people to fulfill the narrow and specific definitions of their job to support clear and consistent communication (and control) across sprawling organizations.
In a wheel, all the participants are entangled in specific and idiosyncratic ways, meaning that the departure of one person can disrupt every person. Furthermore, the scope and type of work they leave behind is unique and bespoke, beyond what a job description can convey. A great example of “wheel” structure comes from Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, who wouldn’t introduce a new member to the team, but rather would introduce everyone to the new team (Dworkin 2013).
Both structures provide valuable outcomes. Both come with costs. Only pyramids can deliver large-scale coordination and its benefits. But they tend to dampen or discourage deep human interaction. Only wheels “cater to the whole person and give the person a sense of belongingness.” But they can be closed and exclusionary in their focus, and they don’t scale well.
If you’re keeping score at home, you’ll notice an odd disconnect about pyramids and wheels as they relate to nonprofit arts organizations.
Most arts organizations lean toward a pyramid structure (jobs and relationships defined by roles not individuals, reporting structures that mimic conventions rather than the idiosyncrasies of the team). But almost all nonprofit arts organizations are well below the Dunbar number of 100 to 150 people. A 2006 study of nonprofit arts organizations in Columbus, Ohio, for example, found that 86 percent had staff numbers lower than 5 (Chang 2010).
So, why would so many groups choose a thin-and-big structure when they look like a thick-and-small one? Why climb a pyramid when you could ride a wheel? Some of that choice is based on peer and patron pressure – a “real” business looks like a pyramid. Some is based on habit and the radical dominance of one form over the other in American society. And some is likely an attempt to balance competing demands of community and compliance that face any creative enterprise.
Regardless, it’s worth interrogating the dominant mode of your organization, and deciding together whether that mode is a conscious and coherent choice or a force of habit.
Chang, Woong Jo. “How ‘Small’ Are Small Arts Organizations?” Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 40 (2010): 217–34.
Dworkin, Aaron. Keynote Address. Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium. American University. 2013.
Galtung, Johan. “Anomie/Atomie: On the Impact of Secularization/Modernization on Moral Cohesion and Social Tissue.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 15, no. 8/9/10 (August 1, 1995): 121–47.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: People Operations
People Operations involves designing and driving systems and practices that attract, engage, retain, and develop people within the enterprise (also called human resources).
Framework of the Week: Pyramid and Wheel
There are countless ways to categorize collective human action. But sociologist/political-scientist/historian Johan Galtung suggests there are essentially only two: thick-and-small (“the wheel”) and thin-and-big (“the pyramid”).
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