Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The nature of institutions

I have received email from several folks regarding my earlier post about how large organizations eliminate anything interesting about an idea or vision.


There is quite a lot of social theory on this topic. As a psychologist, I do believe this phenomenon largely reduces to the cognitive systems and behaviors of individual members of these organizations.

Here's one way to think about it: People are built to do what works. To behave in a way that maximizes their chances of success in their environment. Since time is costly, people are built to arrive at good-enough decisions expeditiously. So we all have our rules of thumb that save us time and generally work. Some of these are common to all humans. Some we each learn individually as we go through life.

When we take a novel, interesting idea or vision and pass it through the gauntlet of a large organization, each jagged edge will offend some constituency. It will offend them because it violates a rule they have about what works or doesn't work. And so, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the idea is smoothed until it offends nobody - and offers nothing to the world.

Here's the rub about these rules of thumb and why they are so insidious. They work. They work really really well. Right up until the point where they fail catastrophically. We cannot walk away from these rules of thumb. They represent "judgement" or the learned pattern recognition of experts. But we also have to constantly be on the lookout for the change in our environment that will render these rules useless. That is, we must be able to drive using both the rearview mirror and the windshield - at the same time.

If we cannot find individuals who are good at doing both of these things, then we must setup our organization with constituencies that are responsible for each and insure an executive function that is adequately informed by each perspective.

1 comment:

Ras said...

Institutions seek only to perpetuate themselves. They are not, by nature, creative. Any new idea must be vetted so that its not harmful to the status quo.

Nyasha Mboti