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:
- Don't Rebuild the Chrysler Building
- When we undertake change, we're usually surprised at the effort and cost required. Much of this effort
and cost is necessary because of the nature of the processes we're changing. What can we do differently
to make change easier in the future?
- Pick-Up Sticks and the Change Game
- When we change organizational culture, we often stumble over unexpected obstacles. Sometimes the tangle
can be so frustrating that we want to start the company over again. Here are some tips for managing
large-scale cultural change.
- The True Costs of Cost-Cutting
- The metaphor "trimming the fat" rests on the belief that some parts of the organization are
expendable, and we can remove them with little impact on the remainder. Ah, if only things actually
worked that way...
- Good Change, Bad Change: I
- Change is all around. Some changes are welcome and some not, but when we distinguish good change from
bad, we often get it wrong. Why?
- The Restructuring-Fear Cycle: I
- When enterprises restructure, reorganize, downsize, outsource, spin off, relocate, lay off, or make
other adjustments, they usually focus on financial health. Often ignored is the fear these changes create
in the minds of employees. Sadly, that fear can lead to the need for further restructuring.
See also Organizational Change for more related articles.
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- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on March 21.
- And on March 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
- Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
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