True Mind Consulting

February 6, 2023

The phrase “computer says no” has become ubiquitous (at least wherever people have watched Little Britain) as a shorthand for bureaucratic blockages. In any organisation there seem to be so many subsystems whose role is to stop people getting things done.

I used to work in Risk — an area which is supposed to be there to protect an organisation. However, it tends to be unpopular with people in other departments, because most of what it seems to do is stop them from doing their job. The only way I was able to stop myself being unpopular too was to be the “good cop” who helped outsiders navigate the various rules and processes that we required them to adhere to. So the benefit of working with Risk was… that we helped you figure out how to do all the stuff you didn’t have to do before you worked with Risk. It reminds of an old joke from the Eastern Bloc:

Q: What’s so great about communism?

A: Communism is a wonderful way of planning the economy to solve all the problems we didn’t have before we had communism.

One way to look at this is that a subsystem, whose job should be to support or protect its parent system, is taking on a life of its own, going beyond what it was put there to do. It gets to the point where the support function controls the functions it was supposed to support. We’ve all come across HR departments that won’t let you hire people, or fire them, or promote them — or finance departments that won’t let you spend money even when it would earn you more money.

Traditional management theories treat companies as machines (ever seen a model with “input”, “process”, “output”? That’s a machine metaphor), but they often bear more of a resemblance to living organisms — hardly surprising as they’re composed of people! Life can be defined by the fact that it creates and recreates itself — aka autopoiesis. Organisations, too, create and recreate themselves. What often happens, however, is that parts of an organisation want to grow beyond the boundaries that make sense for the rest of the organisation. It’s as if your liver or left leg decided to do things its own way and take charge of the rest of you. This is pathological autopoiesis.

If we zoom out further, companies themselves may grow beyond the point where they’re serving their customers/society/environment, and instead become a drain by expecting their customers/society/environment to support them beyond their natural life. At the time, the internal combustion engine was a revolutionary innovation, for all that we know of its negative impacts. Once it became widespread, the car industry ceased to be an innovator and effectively blocked further innovation that would have moved us away from petrol. The same thing can be seen in the tech and finance sectors — once an innovator gets big enough, it creates defaults, “standards” and barriers to entry that serve to block other innovation. So pathological autopoiesis turns your purpose from serving others (if it ever was) to making them serve you.

The only way I can see to guard against this, assuming you start out with a genuine purpose, is to steward it as a precious resource, not just a PR asset but a genuine driving force, and constantly review how the system as a whole and every subsystem serves that purpose. Because the actual purpose of the system is what it does, you need to be on the lookout for the actual purpose drifting away from the stated one.

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