Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 16;   April 16, 2008:

Organizational Loss: Searching Behavior

by

When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational loss.
The Lincoln Memorial at sunrise

The Lincoln Memorial at sunrise. The Lincoln Memorial appears on the reverse side of the U.S. one cent coin. It was on the steps of this memorial that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. For inspiration and the ability to awe, this memorial is unsurpassed. Many cultures build memorials, and most are appropriate. It is the organizational memorial that's sometimes a little over the top. If your organization has memorials, compare them to your national memorials for proportionality. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

With personal grief, there is a phenomenon known as searching behavior. The aggrieved might imagine sightings of the lost loved one, or even apparitions. Sometimes these experiences can be unsettling — the aggrieved can't put their loved ones out of their minds. They're distracted. They can't think straight.

Something similar happens to organizations.

Just like personal loss, organizational loss can take many forms. A company can suffer dramatic market reversals, lose market dominance, suffer a damaging product recall, endure a series of increasingly severe layoffs, and suffer the death of a dynamic leader, or even its founder.

In organizational grief, searching behavior can take bizarre forms. Here are some of them.

Delusional market opportunities
After the organization loses a market opportunity, market opportunities can actually be hallucinated. The group might identify and vigorously pursue strategies or tactics that hearken back to the lost opportunity.
Today's market opportunities don't necessarily align with yesterday's. To move forward, the organization might have to try something new.
Recovering lost dominance
After the organization loses a dominant market position of long standing, it might "discover" a strategy to restore market dominance even when other healthier firms firmly control the market. Or it might try to restore a position now plainly fragmented by new technologies, new ideas or natural events.
Dominance usually goes to those who provide a solution that's some mixture of "right" and "early." Asking for do-overs rarely pays off.
One lesson of the past
that usually bears
repeating is modesty
The founder's museum
In personal loss, attachment to the personal effects of the loved one is common. The organizational form is similar. Firms that have lost their founder and come on hard times financially might devote precious resources to constructing monuments, museums, or displays. A portrait, a bust or even a statue might be reasonable for most, but museums dedicated to displaying the effects of the founder are much bigger investments.
Displays that emphasize the lessons of the past, in some proportional way, can be inspiring. One lesson of the past that usually bears repeating is modesty.
The memorial prize or medal
Some organizations establish scholarships or prizes in the names of their lost founders or leaders. The resources are expended with little regard for the financial returns, often in the hope that the activity will inspire or motivate employees, or bring honor to the organization.
While maintaining connection to the person lost is certainly a valid goal, especially for those who feel personal loss, keep in mind the effects of award frequency. Annual awards aren't likely to encourage contributions that match the scale of the contributions of the person being memorialized.

These behaviors can be either healthy or not. Two factors distinguish the unhealthy: the proportionality of the effort, and the scale of the investment compared to the possible organizational benefit. Both are difficult to quantify, but if you feel a twinge of embarrassment, consider it an indicator of trouble. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager  Next Issue

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