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Bruce Holland

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This is a brief summary of a seminar I gave on Beanbag Management. The case I put forward was that organisations structured like a BEANBAG are far faster, more flexible, and more stable than the alternative TOWER-like structures. They are also far more rewarding to work in and fun.

What is a beanbag?

Beanbags are different from Towers.

  1. Like a beanbag these organisations have porous, flexible walls; rather than the thick, impervious, solid walls of Tower-like organisations

  2. Like a beanbag they fit exactly to their environment no matter how much it changes; unlike the Tower which is slow to move

  3. Like a beanbag the individuals inside are free to move far more easily to where they can add the most value to customers; unlike Towers where people are fixed in jobs and silos of power

  4. Like a beanbag they a very stable and seldom fall over; unlike Towers which have had a poor record recently.

Principles of living systems

Beanbags are based on the principles of living systems. Managers grow them rather than build them. They are organic rather than mechanical. They can not be controlled or driven. Beanbag managers focus on creating a workplace where human energy is released and people grow.

In comparison Tower managers focus on limiting, controlling, engineering, driving change and filling jobs.

Picture of a beanbag

At the seminar, half the participants were asked to demonstrate what it would be like to work in a Tower. In the demonstration they were only allowed to use their bodies, they were not allowed to talk while they were doing it. This is what the rest of us observed. They formed into 5 small groups. In each group people stood in a circle without touching the next person, all facing inwards with their backs to the other circles. Perhaps unfairly, four circles were made up of men and one of women. All circles were very serious and static, the only movement occurred when occasionally a member of one circle reached out to pass some imaginary thing to another circle.

The other half of the participants used their bodies to demonstrate what it would be like to work in a Beanbag. They formed one big circle, with each person holding hands with the next person. Almost immediately and quite naturally the circle started to move, it surged in and around so that people changed position and everyone became all mixed up. Although it looked fairly chaotic there was also a sense of pattern about it. There was an energy that simply did not exist within the tower. People laughed and smiled, they clearly enjoyed the experience.

Why is this important?

I think this is really important because if a manager has a tower in mind they do certain things and if they have a beanbag in mind they do quite different things. In a Beanbag managers:

  1. Focus on the whole system, not the departments or divisions.
  2. Focus on relationships which take on a whole new order of meaning.
  3. Take self-organisation as a given and know that order comes from reducing controls.
  4. Know that feedback (information, knowledge and new experience from outside the system) is not just nice to have, it's essential.
  5. Believe that FLOW is a critical concept. Each process is matched with the other processes so that the whole performs most efficiently - not the parts.

How many managers spend most of their time thinking about the whole System? Relationships? Self-organisation? Feedback? Flow? The only ones that I know who think like this also think of their organisation as a Beanbag.

Many years of experimentation

In 1992 I resigned from a really interesting job as Group Strategic Planning manager at the BNZ convinced that there had to be a better way for people to undertake work. Since then I have been searching and only now am I finally getting closer to understanding the conditions in which people work most effectively.

I now know that, at the extreme, Beanbags don't work - early versions of Virtual Group have proved this. However the ideal is much closer to the Beanbag than it is to the Tower. The answer is not some halfway house. The answer is to be both Beanbag AND Tower at the same time. We need to free up most things and to control a few. The trick is to know which is which!

If you would like to discuss this further, give me a call on Phone +6421620456 or Skype Bruce.Hollandl.

Very best wishes


Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZs most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work

Key words: Leadership, leadership development, leadership management, leadership training, leadership program, leadership skills

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