March 7, 2009

All living things seem driven at the most basic levels to self-repair. Multi-cellular organisms have a particular obsession with it – in fact, a cell’s inability to maintain its DNA undamaged is one of the primary triggers for what’s called apoptosis, or “programmed cell death”, when the mitochondria in a cell unleash a biochemical collapse. Single-celled organisms don’t seem so fastidious, and we can understand why.

To maintain a complex, interdependent biological system, with specialised cells performing specific regulated functions, it is important that the stability and consistency of the system be maintained. This is called homeostasis. Unregulated mutations and variability in function disturb the balance and the function of the whole. In fact, we have a name for it – cancer.

Single-celled organisms by contrast are very much independent players. There isn’t such an evolutionary driver towards accuracy of repair – in fact, variability of mutation across the population is one of their strengths.

Programmed cell death plays an important part in differentiating our limbs and giving us our form. The cells of embryos start as a blob in the womb, and cell death between sectors of the blob literally divides our limbs, like genetic scissors cutting us to shape. And cell death helps us manage the balance between new cell production and the need to shed our damaged, poorly repaired cells.

Apoptosis also plays a role in the protection and repair of the organism as a whole, in the repair of wounds and expulsion of disease. The biochemical signals from distressed or damaged cells recruit immune cells to the site to engulf and destroy any pathogens; cell replication and the death of the damaged cells re-grows tissue and re-binds bone, just as it did in the womb, if less perfectly.


Homeostasis – the lives and deaths of whole populations of cells collaborating temporarily to maintain a single organism in a stable, continuous lifespan gives an obvious parallel to organisational life, which must survive the comings and goings of different employees over many years.

Repair is a less obvious parallel but potentially even more interesting, because it seems to permeate our lives at more than the cellular and biological system level. We repair things around us, both physical and mental, all the time.

We see it in the small, improvised fixes to problems in our processes and systems – the photocopied notice taped up years ago at the service counter telling us only cash is accepted to pre-empt wasting time in the queue, the personal notebook of key contacts to call if we need help on specific problems. We see it in the small gestures, contacts and “grooming” activities we engage in to repair and maintain our relationships. We see it in the constant meetings we hold to repair our common understanding.

Even our urge to create new things can be called a form of repair because it uses the mechanisms of repair (as apoptosis serves both repair and embryonic design), giving coherence and form and completeness to something that we can only half imagine at the start but are not satisfied with.

And we see the repair instinct at work in our large scale organisational development and change initiatives. These are examples of what I would call adaptive repair, refitting the homeostatic balance and function for the perceived needs of a new reality. Our bodies also engage in adaptive repair, as callouses and muscle growth attest.

Repair functions at every level of our existence, we repair at the level of the cell, at the level of the individual, and at the level of the social group. We must repair – it is, literally, in our genes.

Lessons: Change Design

So what can the notion of repair in the body (and that intriguing complex of relationships between repair, homeostasis, adaptation and programmed death) teach us about organisational life?

The most obvious lesson is that the instinct to repair is intrinsically conservative and it is almost irresistible. It is rooted in our biology and it is this, and not some abstract “mindset” which drives what we call “resistance to change”.

Change induces stress, stress provokes signals of distress, signals summon an immune response – and this immune response is about summoning resources to overwhelm the change and repair it.

In practical terms, this means that any programmed change initiative is biased towards failure unless it is designed to be both comprehensive and granular. At the operator level, our instincts are to improvise fixes around the change – ie to repair the discontinuities that the change introduces.

Our habit of attempting to drive change based on targets or outcomes will inevitably be sabotaged by the instinct to repair the disturbances in our current homeostatic balance, and we will do this out of sight of the management view if the management view is not sufficiently granular.

Our understanding of the repair instinct suggests that change design must be granular to be effective, and must be designed to harness the repair instinct in the direction of the change, not against it.

Lessons: Regulating Change

There is another lesson from the body, and this is around the idea of apoptosis – programmed cell death stimulated by the failure of a cell to repair its DNA accurately.

This has powerful evolutionary value because it reduces defects in cell replacements, and ensures that the biological system can be maintained. Failure of the apoptotic function in a cell results in uncontrolled growth of defective cells – ie cancer.

Cancer is essentially an out of control repair mechanism in cells that have ceased to subordinate themselves to the interests of the biological system that hosts them. They become parasitic.

This gives a possible insight and a question about organisational repair initiatives such as business process reengineering, six sigma, even knowledge management.

In bodily terms, when they feed themselves more than they feed their host, when they compromise the homeostatic balance and coherence of the whole system, when they are more concerned with repairing themselves than with the repair of the entire system, they are essentially cancerous, and potentially very dangerous.

The question is, how do we find ways to programme the limits on organisational repair in the way that apoptosis does in cells? How do we ensure that organisational repair activity aborts itself when it is no longer reliable in terms of maintaining the whole system – in the way that programmed cell death does?

Lessons: Organisational Death

My final question is about the role of repair in the life and death of the organisation as a whole. Biologists are not sure what the exact relationship is between cellular death and repair, and organism death. Cells must die for the organism to live, death is a precondition for organism repair. (This is not a parallel that I want to pursue in relation to organisations).

However, it seems reasonable to infer that over time, the ability of cells to repair themselves reliably will contribute to the overall health and longevity of the organism that hosts them.

Does this then mean that we can make inferences about the health and prospects of an organisation in very simple ways, by looking at the effectiveness of the repair instinct in employees? And by this I mean looking at symptoms of repair such as helpfulness, improvisation, making fixes, responsiveness, problems closed.

Are there simple ways of tracking the health and predicting the collapse of an organisation?

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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