Recipe for Ruin: Nothing Lasts Unless It Is Incessantly Renewed

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Over the weekend a comment on a management blog referred to a piece by management writer Steve Denning in Forbes magazine. Entitled “The Key Missing Ingredient in Leadership Today”, it argued that real leadership is all about transforming systems, not sustaining them. In making his provocative arguments, Denning referred to another view of leadership by William Deresiewicz entitled “Solitude and Leadership” based on a lecture delivered to West Point Military Academy in 2009. Deresiewicz himself is a former Professor of English at Yale, who draws his inspiration for writing from literature. In his lecture he turned to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for an understanding of bureaucracy, invoking also Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now, the plot of which was based on Conrad’s book.  Both the lecture and the blog made for stimulating reading but I found myself unable to agree with much of Denning’s blog. What follows is the comment I made on Forbes:

Thanks for the reference to the Deresiewicz lecture and your provocative article. Unfortunately I can’t agree with much of it.

You write, for example, that “the enemy is hierarchical bureaucracy”, while at the same time advocating “thinking in terms of systems not just individuals”. But, from a systems perspective, large, complex organizations cannot exist without being modular (specialized) and hierarchical (organized in layers). For such organizations there can be no freedom (creativity) without discipline (structure). We need to distinguish between coercive bureaucracies, where policies are imposed, and enabling bureaucracies, where policies are embodied as virtuous habits and then revised as the organization learns (the Toyota Production System comes to mind). Of course the former is much easier and quicker to create through fiat, while the latter demands persistent focus and takes much longer to develop. But without discipline there can be no freedom and unless it is embodied then it must be imposed; otherwise large, complex institutions will collapse sooner rather than later.

There is a clue here that we are looking at a human ecological process. Over time all institutions run to ruin and nothing lasts unless it is incessantly renewed. Organizations are conceived in passion, born in communities of trust, grow through the application of logic and mature in power. Slowly the organization’s original ends are replaced by the apparently successful means as the organization’s primary focus. Success and power then freeze the organization, making it vulnerable to threats that are usually ignored until they become overwhelming.  What follows is crisis and destruction but with the possibility of renewal. The best models for this come from ecology – understanding, for example, how many natural systems are renewed by fire.

You say that we already “know how” to run organizations differently, to reinvent the Fortune 500, government, education and the health system. You make it sound as if there was some context-free formula that could be universally applied. But this is not “know-how”; it is “in-principle” “know-what”. It is the “straight left arm” and “head still” golf instruction that one gives to beginners. It actually describes desirable outcomes, rather like the Deresiewicz’ article does for leadership. It might be a first step, but is not a pathway to competence. For every organization (and golfer) is different and thus unique. Contexts matter and history matters and every “solution” has to be discovered and embedded as a hierarchy of virtuous modular habits. And then they have to be continually refined and updated, if the organization is to be sustainable; this is why nothing lasts unless it is incessantly renewed.

We can agree on one thing: real leadership is about transforming the system. But it is not about starting with a “clean slate” or abandoning the past. It is about the restoration of meaning to an organization and its people. It requires the revisiting of the mission and purpose of the organization – “who we are” and “why we are here”. Most importantly it is about constructing a shared, compelling narrative that uses the past, the present and future to creating new identities for organizations and meanings within which people can find themselves. The intention is to energize people, engage their attention and encourage them to explore for new opportunities.

Of course these are just desirable outcomes, but at least they acknowledge that there are no universal solutions and that each organization and individual has to find their own “swing”. This search will often be precipitated by crisis. It also suggests that we need a new mental model based on ecological perspective that embraces the tensions between discipline and freedom, management and leadership, and nurtures the possibilities for growth and creativity in the space between them.

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