The Inevitability of Organizational Death

Aging and death are natural-both for people and for organizations. Clearly an organization is not a biological entity, yet enough similarities exist to justify the parallel.

People have life cycles; when someone gets lucky, they are born, grow up, have kids, have grandkids, get sick, and die. This is natural. Yes, to some extent the aging process of an individual can be slowed down. But we all get old and die, and that is a best case scenario.

Organizations have life cycles as well. When they are conceived, they are crazy, sexy, innovative and informal-then they proceed along a path of aging as nature takes it course. Most organizations get very sick, get old (or prematurely old)  and die, or disappear in acquisitions or disasters such as sudden loss of market. Only few will last a long, long time. Death is part of organizational life.

If OD is to be true to its humanistic roots, we must cleanse ourselves from the denial of death. Life of a high quality needs to be prolonged, yet we need to better understand what can change and what cannot change. We need to acknowledge that an organization’s various illnesses and ultimate death are part of its life. 

OD needs to beware of over treating (yet another reorg) and over diagnosing (too much feedback when change is impossible). For many aging organizations , there are no “cures” or magic elixirs.

We much accept an organizations’ limitations & ultimate decay, which include containment of pain and eventually hospice. It do believe that there is an organizational parallel to the famed Dr Werner in the French Movie Country Doctor (Medecin de capagne), who deals with an elderly patients death with grace and dignity.

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5 thoughts on “The Inevitability of Organizational Death

  1. Dear Allon,

    I read almost articles you wrote on your blog, and impressed by your sharp insights deriving from your world class OD experience. I am HR with 13 years of experience including less than 3 years of OD experience. I hold great passion to be a solid OD practitioner, however it is not a smooth path in China since OD is rare with very immature development. I just quit from my current company which I couldn’t live with its bad culture and leadership value.

    I’d like to hear from your advice of survive and thrive in OD?

    Rgds/Clare

    • Dear Clare,

      OD generally cannot be implemented in China because OD was designed by Westerners for Western forms of organizing.
      For many years, I studied Chinese History with someone who was close to Chou En-Lai. From my many years of studying China, I know that even Mao made an effort adapt Communist values to the Confucian and family infrastructure.
      OD has not made this effort so OD has not chance to solve problems of Chinese organizations.

      I have done a lot of OD in the Mid East and Europe and Thailand, which also are not western, so I will give you a few ideas.

      1) The driving force must be external….how do WE deal with foreign companies, subsidiaries. How do WE deal best with competition?
      2) What are the systemic problems that need to be addressed. What can OD do? What can’t it do?
      3) Should we train OD people who have this as their major specialty, or should be was managers and make them carriers of OD.

      In other words, one cannot DO western OD in China. One can develop OD for China. It helps if you know that you are in the development stage.
      Perhaps you can find someone willing to invest in a search for developing answers to these questions.

      Thank you for following me. I could try and answer you because I studied Chinese many year BUT, I know OD but VERY BAD in Chinese.
      Thanks
      Allon

  2. Thought provoking blog as always Allon. Thank you. As is often the case with your blogs I find myself wanting to ask questions to probe deeper. So in this case I wonder: How would we know that it’s time to let the particular organisation die? What are the indicators that it’s declining beyond what is reasonable to try to inject new life? What would ‘hospice care’ look like in this context? Definitely food for thought.

  3. We might consider OD not as something to institutionalize, but as a method of assisting companies/organizations attain fulfilllment of their mission. OD provides us with many concepts and tools from which to choose to use in the various environments we find ourselves. I have a little experience in China, way back in the 1980’s in Hong Kong. The anthropologist side of OD becomes very important to being useful in that environment. If the goal is to humanize or democratize or whatever, trouble is just around the corner. If the goal is to get them to the next stage of development (even “exit?), you should have lots to work on.

    Check out the internet for “life stages of organizations” Lots of good stuff around.

  4. This post of yours, Allon, from 2013, is a good one to revisit in 2018.

    I notice that the last comment (in 2015) came from Jack Tesmer, who subsequently passed on from this life. He is greatly missed by the OD community. But his passing is a lesson that “all shall pass,” just as your post is saying.

    You deal in truth, Allon, and so this post speaks truth: even organizations grow old and pass away. There is nothing wrong about this. It is the natural way of things.

    I wonder, in the spirit of Jack’s comment, if there is a “natural OD” that can be discovered and articulated?

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