Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 4;   January 28, 2004: He's No Longer Here

He's No Longer Here

by

Sometimes we adopt inappropriate technologies, or we deploy unworkable processes, largely because of the political power of their advocates, and despite widespread doubts about the wisdom of the moves. Strangely, though, the decisions often stick long after the advocates move on. Why? And what can we do about it?

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.

FeedbackLance 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 systems
Similar 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? Go to top Top  Next issue: No Surprises  Next Issue

Order from AmazonStrange 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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