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:
- Workplace Taboos and Change
- In the workplace, some things can't be discussed — they are taboo. When we're aware of taboos,
we can choose when to obey them, and when to be more flexible. When we're unaware of them, they can
limit our ability to change.
- 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.
- The Ties that Bind
- Changing anything in an organization reveals how it's connected to its people, to its processes, to
its facilities, and to the overall context. Usually, these connections reach out much further into the
organization than we imagine.
- Kinds of Organizational Authority: the Formal
- A clear understanding of Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority
found in organizations. Here's Part I of a little catalog of authority classes.
- 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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- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald
Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen
had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished.
As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important
lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product
development. Read more about this program. Here's
a date for this program:
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July
Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati
chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July 17, Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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