All organisations are pathological

David Griffiths wrote a provocative article about how predator-prey relationships enable the rich biodiversity of complex ecosystems, and the need for predators in organisations.

I would argue that organisations differ from ecosystems in the important respect that most people have the ability to leave whenever they wish. (The word "most" is significant here, as will be shown.)

This fundamentally alters the balance of the equation. Normally, evolution occurs because exit from the ecosystem is often either not an option, or too costly to be practical. But in an organisation, any person who is able to deliver value outside of their current employment can simply "fly" to the next opportunity if a "predator" becomes overly bothersome. The impact of flying away is low, and once outside of the organisation, there is little the predator can do to pursue.

Logically it follows that if unchecked, organisational predators will eventually drive away everyone capable of leaving.

I would like to hypothesize that organisations tend towards three models:
- 'paradise' where predators are few and rewards are seen as great
- 'tribal' where predators are kept at bay through protection provided by strong individuals
- 'jungle' where predators abound and the only reason prey remain is that they cannot escape

All have unique pathologies:
- The 'paradise' organisation will inevitably lead to only recruiting/retaining employees with certain characteristics. These characteristics will be attributed as the reason for the success of the paradise even if there is little evidence in support. They tend to be fragile and often hide weaknesses that are rapidly exposed through changing circumstances.
- The 'tribal' organisation will end up with tribe members prioritising protection over corporate goals of the organisation. Obviously unions are a classic example of this mentality.
- The 'jungle' organisation will be nasty and demoralised, with short-term loyalties bought through bribery and high turnover seen as a normal part of business. Some of the less-pleasant call centres at least historically match this description; also see the Upton Sinclair novel.

None of these models appear likely to promote innovation and resilience. It may be that (as I sometimes suspect) the organisation is fundamentally a pathological construct, and that the idea of a "healthy organisation" is a myth.

However, there is a fourth model: the 'god' model. Here, leaders impose rules of behavior that limit the damage that predators can do to prey groupings. It explains the evolution of doctrine such as HR policy and practice and all the other paraphenalia that comes along with modern organisations.

My feeling is that this last model is the most stable and productive in the long run. But I have no evidence to back this up ... if anyone knows of research in this space, I'd love to hear about it!

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Comments

David Griffiths (not verified) — Tue, 13/03/2012 - 04:02

Hi Stephen... First of all, thank you for responding to my initial blog.

Where I would disagree is that we cannot deny the existence of the relationship categories; they are an established part of ecosystem science. Also, we, as humans, exist within the ecosystem and our actions change the limitations/parameters of the environment - for example, as the article I referred to stated, global warming. This draws us into what we can possible learn from these categories in relation to complex macro/micro organisational environments.

For example, you said, "Logically it follows that if unchecked, organisational predators will eventually drive away everyone capable of leaving". You are of course, correct, but it will also lead to predator starvation, as a result of the diminished population of prey - in natural science that would relax the environment enough to allow for the recovery of Competition and Symbiotic based relationships...in reality, allowing that situation to emerge, would mean that the leadership have ignored Palchinsky's second principle; scalable failure...this in itself would change the limitations of the environment, resulting in change.

My other argument is that the predator-prey relationship is an important factor in considering variety-selection processes in organisations - taking the role of Predation in maintaining the stability of an ecosystem, it is possible to extrapolate a rationale for the same relationship being applied as a selection process in the attenuation of variety.

The point I was trying to make through my blog was that these occurances are a natural part of the ecosystem, they maintain stability, and therefore it is something that we should perhaps try and understand when we develop systems or when we reflect on management processes designed to regulate the environment.

Thought provoking response though... Cheers

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