Tara knocked twice on Lance's doorjamb. "Got a minute?" she asked. Lance continued staring intently at his screen, typed a few more characters, clicked once, and looked up.
"Sure. What's up?"
"I was wondering when you'll have those slides ready," she said.
Lance rubbed his eyes. He was clearly tired. "Let's see, finish entering the data into APOLLO. That should take the rest of the afternoon, so maybe by 10. PM. Assuming that APOLLO behaves."
"Hmmm," Tara began. "What if we skip APOLLO?"
Tara and Lance might miss their deadline if they follow procedures and make the entries into APOLLO, a hard-to-use database deployed by a long since departed but powerful VP. They're considering bypassing it because nobody has ever figured out how to use its data. Still, they keep entering it.
The forces that keep
systems in place
can differ from the
forces that created
those systemsSimilar things can happen with other kinds of software, and with procedures, too. They're useless, but they remain in place. What's going on?
Sometimes, when a system's advocate leaves, the advocate's constituency reconfigures. The power that put the system in place no longer exists, but the system lives on. This mechanism is called a "strange loop." Strange loops are common in complex systems such as human organizations, where they often make change very difficult. Here's why.
When we try to change, we sometimes ask, "How did we get here?" We're hoping that if we understand the path we took to the current configuration, then we can better devise adjustments. Sadly, although this sometimes works, the forces that keep a structure in place are often very different from those that installed it. They can be completely unrelated, and proceeding on the basis of the arrival story can be very misleading.
For instance, when a boneheaded process is installed, at first there can be so much resistance that the power of the advocate is the only explanation for the organization's accepting it. But once performance assessments become tied to competence with the system, the system is there to stay. That's just one of many reasons why boneheaded systems live on. Here are a few more:
- We can't afford the system that would replace it.
- We can't afford to dismantle it.
- We're in such disarray because of the advocate's departure that we can't decide much of anything.
- We can't acknowledge that we made such a crazy error.
- Nobody wants to open that can of worms again — everyone is too burned out.
To eliminate vestigial systems, understand not what created them, but what supports them. If they really are so useless, ask: Why are we so locked in? What's keeping the system going? How can we break the strange loop? Top Next Issue
Strange Loops are discussed at length in Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Order from Amazon.com.
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More articles on Organizational Change:
- Now We're in Chaos
- Among models of Change, the Satir Change Model has been especially useful for me. It describes how people
and systems respond to change, and handles well situations like the one that affected us all on September
- Plenty of Blame to Go Around
- You may have heard the phrase "plenty of blame to go around," or maybe you've even used it
yourself. Although it sometimes does bring an end to immediate finger pointing, it also validates blame
as a general approach. Here's how to end the blaming by looking ahead.
- Piling Change Upon Change: Management Credibility
- When leaders want to change organizational directions, processes, or structures, some questions arise:
How much change is too much change? Here's a look at one constraint: the risk to management credibility.
- Patching Up the Cracks
- When things repeatedly "fall through the cracks," we're not doing the best we can. How can
we deal with the problem of repeatedly failing to do what we need to do? How can we patch up the cracks?
- Deciding to Change: Choosing
- When organizations decide to change what they do, the change sometimes requires that they change how
they make decisions, too. That part of the change is sometimes overlooked, in part, because it affects
most the people who make decisions. What can we do about this?
See also Organizational Change for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
- And on November 29: Manipulators Beware
- When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
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- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
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