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, sick and die; 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. This is especially true now as covid has decimated supply chain, labour supply, motivation and cash flow.
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 must 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.
I wrote the above post several years ago. Since then, not only have I aged (somewhat gracefully, I hope) , but there is a pandemic raging-with organizational collapses a-dime-a-dozen, fear of illness and societal/political delay all around us.
There have been several attempts to cope with the pandemic which appear to be part of the denial-of-death which this post originally challenged. What caught my eye from the very beginning was the “back to normal” harpings of the “positive thinkers” and those who grind lemons into lemonade which aggravate the shit out of me.
Periods of sickness are normal, and after many protracted diseases, we are never the same.
I suffer from a very painful lower back pain for most of my life, due to my height and genetics. The pain used to come and go; now it comes much more than it goes. I keep very active, watch my weight, and wouldn’t you know it, the pain is there. However, there are good days and bad days. Good hours and bad hours. The best of times and the worst of times. This is natural. Like a pandemic.
Afterthought: Yalom’s Staring at the Sun is a brilliant guide to overcoming the fear of death. When my mind wanders in the wrong direction, Yalom’s guidance serves me well. People can and do err when fear of death prevails, butchering their lives and others’ due to not accepting the inevitable.
The present “fear” and obsession about the threats posed by AI are a good example of what happens when the inevitability of organizational death is ignored. AI is just another change. It will not make organizations immune from its natural life cycle. It will not save us, or kill us. No. It is just another change.
Organizations are born, get old and die.