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Of chickens and eggs

November 28, 2010

One question raised in the comments to my post on Perdition was from Chavin Parekh who asked for my views on the idea of Requisite Organization developed by Elliott Jaques. It is an important question, hence a post rather than a direct reply to the comment. Jaques opposed the dominant view in management science which focuses on individuals, their competences and capabilities more than it does on organisational design. Instead he argued that failures can in the main be linked to poor organisations design rather than some deficiency in the employees and leadership.

Now I am generally sympathetic to this position,but with some qualifications. I don’t want to make a specific critique of Jaques or associated ideas such as Stratified Systems Theory but I will make some general comments on the system v individual question

  • I think there is more than enough evidence to show that good structures are more able to overcome bad people than there is to prove the reverse. We can see that in military and professional organisations as well as others.
  • That said, in history this seems to require a degree of ritual and longer periods of training (think of the professions) to build patterns of response into people occupying well defined roles
  • People make bad systems work by working around them, the problem is that this disguises failure for too long. So when the system does fail, it fails catastrophically
  • Systems that evolve are more successful in managing people than ones that are designed in the abstract.
  • During the systems thinking period we have had an emphasis on designing either an idea person or an ideal system. Both fail to understand that humans are not “widgets” which can be programmed with capabilities or competences. Both fail to understand that as human systems evolve they develop natural constrains and ways of doing things which could not be anticipated in any formal design
  • A complex systems approach to this would work with whatever current systems exist and start to make changes such as reducing the number of reporting levels, killing a matrix but keeping one dimension intact while introducing a cross silo technique such as crews to increase the ability to manage resiliently with changing contexts
  • At all cost massive and complete re-organisations should be avoided in all cases other than those of catastrophic failure.
  • Other changes likely to produce evolutionary change that are beneficial would include making managers responsible over longer time periods (target hopping is a real problem) and ensuring that there are roles for experienced people in “senior non-com” roles (master sergeants, matrons, police collators etc.) These roles reward the capacity to integrate ideas and experience without a desire to take a formal leadership role in the organisation as a whole.
  • Making sure that leaders serve time in all the major functions of an organisation is also key, if you don’t have experience of all aspects of an organisation it is very difficult to exercise judgement; oh and training is not the same thing as experience.
  • We need to realise that abstracting capabilities are ways of understanding the past, but they offer no way of managing for the future (I may need to post at more length on this)

Of course we also need to recognise that this is a long term issue. Communitarian cultures historically see the individual as gaining meaning through their membership of a community. Socially atomistic cultures see communities as aggregations of individuals and individual interests. Atomism predominates in the anglo-saxon world so we should not be surprised to see its assumptions dominate the organisational literature. However as the world becomes more connected, communitarian principles and practices may offer more possibility of progress.

So this is another of those false dichotomies (rather like the hierarchy v anarchy one); we need to take a dialectical or co-evolutionary perspective. Good system design (especially if its evolved) can sustain bad people but can still be perverted by evil. Saints can overcome the deficiencies of bad systems in the short term but no longer, and predicating any approach to organisations on ideal qualities and competences is foolish and irresponsible.

One other consequence of this question by the way has been my removal of several commercial links from the wikipedia entry on Requisite Organisation!

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