Chronic Diseases of Organizations

 Opening Comments

Very much similar to people, organizations tend to have chronic diseases.

These diseases are a function of

  • life cycle of the organization,
  • CEO’s who have lead and founded the organization,
  • domain in which the organization operates,
  • degree of regulation,
  • random factors that we do not understand.

The goal of this post is to illustrate some of the more frequent chronic diseases and suggest ways that OD can be harnessed to address (not cure) these ills.

Many of the chronic conditions listed below may appear in all organizations, yet only a  constant recurrence of the same ailment make it chronic.

2-Chronic Diseases, Symptoms and Possible Causes

  • Constant Reorganization

Symptoms-the organization is always preparing for a reorganization, implementing a reorganization, or after an unsuccessful reorg

Possible Causes– Incompetence, buying time, creating a cloud of uncertainly to enable blaming.

Example-K has a product that is no longer competitive, although they still have one legacy product which will make them money for decades. New technology initiatives are killed on arrival. The organizations has had 7 reorganizations in three years.

  • Processes Nazism

Symptoms– constant clarification of process, roles,  responsibilities, charter and the constant pursuit of clarity as the ultimate elixir.

Possible Causes-a desire to define away complexity; inability to implement teamwork

Example-P has technical presales in Holland, Sales in each geography and Product Management in Texas. All 3 functions mistrust one another. They have been defining roles and responsibilities for 12 years.

  • Measurement-ism

Symptoms-measure everything, if possible on line

Possible Causes-mistrust, IT-gone-mad, efficiency as strategy

Example-C has been loosing 200,000 end users yearly for five years due to a change in regulation. Performance indicators of the service team have been updated 33 times in the 4 years “to find out why people are opting out” of the service.

  • Sloganeering

Symptoms-constant window dressing and perfuming the pig to make things look better than they are, hiding and denial

Possible Causes: monopoly, government intervention, too much regulation, high level of media scrutiny

Example-a police force, loyal only to an elected official has been getting bad press for 8 years, due to racism, brutality and corruption, all which serve the mayor’s interest. Massive money is poured into internal communication and “image management”,

  • Silo-ism (the ultimate chronic disease, like back pain)

Symptoms-lack of transparency, maximization of sub systems

Possible Causes: latent or overt fear of coup, need to allocate blame, paranoia at the top, divide and conquer as a religion. measurement system, poor staffing

Example-A functional organization lacks end to end ownership of client issues. A very dominant CEO (and his father) have maintained control by “divide and conquer”. The CEO complains of siloism, although he constantly ensures that his managers squabble about ownership issues. He fires one executive every 5-6 years.

3-Guidelines for the OD practitioner

In order to address an organizations chronic illness, there are certain precautions that OD practitioners much factor into their interventions. After all, there is no need to “amputate a lung” due to chronic asthma.

Here are few guidelines that may help you treat chronic illnesses properly:

  • Understand the history of the organization
  • Understand the latent function and ongoing secondary benefit of all dysfunction, and that will be decisive in understanding if the illness is chronic or not. For example, the benefit of process Nazism is to avoid dealing with trust issues.
  • Set proper expectations, ie- mitigating the dysfunction, instead of curing it
  • Less intense care spread over time, instead of an extensive effort to drive change
  • Pain management, ie, adjustment to the pain
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12 thoughts on “Chronic Diseases of Organizations

  1. This content is well-thought through and proof that its author has experienced the trenches as well as the command centers of both public and private organizations.

  2. Makes perfect sense, as always, Allon! And to add to this, as any other disease, the organizational ones are often just a defensive reaction, when the organizational “body” is desperately trying to protect itself from something it perceives (sometimes wrongly) as threatening its very existence. E.g. “measurement-ism” as a defensive reaction to the fear of ambiguity, “process nazism” as a defense against the fear of complexity etc. Hence one of the maxims I use more and more often, “if it ain’t work, it shouldn’t” 🙂

  3. Allon, could you say a wee bit more about the ‘latent function and secondary benefit of all dysfunction’. Interested to understand how you assess this?



    • Dear Pauline,
      So if I company reorganizes three times a year, what is the hidden benefit? 1) “too early” to judge performance 2) inner focus detracts attention from weakness of technology/product vis a vis competitors 3) interfaces that do not work can be blamed instead of the culture

  4. Have seen reorganization by trial and error, mostly error, all too often. It can be perceived as an objective way to resolve, yet instead is a way to avoid, dealing with much messier cultural and/or leadership limitations.

  5. Pingback: How to become OD consultant to a startup | Allon Shevat

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