Institutional Resilience

Jellyfish are a particularly salient example of effective organization!

We all know that large organizations are resistant to change, but why? And is that always a bad thing?

Most of us probably take for granted that, the larger an organization is–be it a company, a government, or some other group of people working together–the more difficult it is to make sweeping changes to the organization’s functions. This tendency is derisively referred to as “bureaucracy” and “institutional inertia.” But another way to describe it is “resilience.” After all, do you always want organizations to radically change when they encounter challenges? Should such changes be easy to accomplish?

Through the lens of my own professional career, I have seen this kind of resilience in action countless times. In fact, the way businesses grow and develop offers a fascinating peek at how institutional practices are formed, changed, and protected. A business just starting out will not have any solid institutional practices. Instead, each individual will bring their own preconceptions, attitudes, and skills. Processes are likely to be ad hoc and individual roles are overly generalized rather than specialized. It’s impossible to have coherent practices in such an environment–the firm is bound to be reactive rather than proactive. Interestingly, the software industry attempted to address this problem by developing so-called agile methodologies. These are designed to harness customer responses effectively and allow the firm, no matter how small, to react swiftly to provide the requested fixes and features.

The key component of such a methodology is a feedback mechanism: customers must be talked with regularly, their needs constantly assessed and elaborated. The results of these communications must then be fed into an appropriate organizational process that ensures the right information reaches the right people at the right time. Figuring out how to do this is not always easy, and becomes more difficult as an organization grows. These feedback mechanisms are essential, and when they are not built into the institutional practices of an organization, they are hard to integrate later.

This ends up being one of the greatest challenges of a growing organization. It is easy to mistake one-on-one relationships between individuals in an organization and outside customers and stakeholders as a sufficient feedback process. Bob tells Jane what he wants in his product, Jane makes it happen, and Bob is happy. It’s efficient because communication is direct and there are no institutional roadblocks forcing Jane’s attention elsewhere or otherwise keeping Bob from providing his feedback to her. But such a model is unworkable when there are a thousand Bobs and fifty Janes. A nascent firm will put in place a support staff to handle the Bobs, and those staff will document the Bobs’ problems, requests, and suggestions. The feedback mechanism is intact… or is it?

Once a firm begins growing to a point where individual employees are forced to specialize and roles become more clearly defined, this is the most opportune time to integrate effective communication and feedback practices. But when a business experiences rapid growth, going from a “garage shop” size to more of a midsize company in the space of months, it’s difficult to impossible to plan such processes in a proactive way. So, a company grows, but its processes remain ad hoc and arbitrary. Information is lost. I’ve seen companies that function this way. Issues are reported by customers, dutifully logged by support staff, but methods to triage and prioritize problems are often not in place, or not adequate. A problem may go unaddressed for months–sometimes even years–unless and until the customer uses some other channel to trigger a panic reaction and get results. My favorite example that I’ve been personally involved with is customers who happen to be friends with Vice Presidents in the company. One phone call can elevate an issue that’s languished in a support queue for months to a critical priority that must be addressed immediately.

If that’s what it takes to get a problem fixed, you know you have a broken process, and thus a flawed institution. How do you fix it, then?

Institutional resilience makes this difficult, which is why it’s best to have good processes in place from day one. Most organizations will not have this, though, so they must be adjusted and restructured to better handle problems. Crises provide good opportunities to examining processes and practices and finding room for improvement. A critical failure should always be seen as a wake-up call that demonstrates an urgent need for improvement. I’ve found that the best way to advocate for change from within an organization is to document the existing process. Even if no formal process is written down, there is a process! Identifying it and laying it out logically can help others understand how the organization currently functions, and may even reveal quite readily just how troubled it is. Then, determine where the bottlenecks and failures are in this process. Are support requests going unanswered for long periods? Are many defects reaching customers? Are deadlines frequently not being met? Is too much time being spent fighting emergencies rather than making forward progress? Answering these questions with hard data is crucial. If the data does not exist, find a way to collect it. Better yet, develop a well-defined, repeatable way to collect it–and then keep collecting it. Guess what? You’ve just created a potential institutional practice. Get that information to the people who can do the most good with it, and go from there.

Also bear in mind that processes most typically break down at departmental boundaries, when they’re handed off from team to team. An established, accountable process for such handoffs is necessary for ensuring nothing gets lost in the shuffle.

Determined individuals, armed with knowledge of the existing process and data on how it is functioning, can begin to alter institutional practices by setting an example. They can also, within reason, place constraints on other teams. For example, a development team may refuse to commit to investigating an issue unless clear and complete details regarding that issue have been obtained by the support team. This forces the support team to change how they work in order to accommodate development’s needs–instead of taking a scattershot approach to customer interaction, they may instead create a script of clear and direct questions which get at the heart of any issue being reported. It can then be fully documented and passed on to development for investigation, confirmation, and correction. Likewise, a quality assurance team may demand that new versions provided by development be accompanied by automated tests which confirm and validate changes, or take other steps to control how new versions are delivered for testing, so that testing can be carried out more efficiently and effectively.

To state the obvious, it is necessary to have support higher up within the organization to enforce these changes and demands, but it is in this way that poor institutional practices can be corrected. Management (or higher) level advocates are needed to provide authority and accountability.

Institutional change, then, can be effectively accomplished through these basic steps:

  1. Document and quantify the existing process.
  2. Determine how it may be improved.
  3. Develop improvements within the most relevant team.
  4. Enforce facilitating improvements at departmental boundaries, with management support if necessary.
  5. With documented success, encourage similar evaluations and changes in other departments.

The most important steps, once a process has been described, involve developing an improved process and obtaining buy-in and accountability for it. Getting other people on board with change is, perhaps, the most critical step. Once this happens, though, change can start to spread on its own. People satisfied with and encouraged by the results of a new process will advocate it to others. But understanding and quantifying existing processes is a necessary first step in changing them–you have to know where you are in order to figure out where you want to go.

Oftentimes, criticism is leveled at institutional leaders who fail to achieve significant change within organizations under their charge. The fact of the matter is that top-down mandates are very difficult to accomplish, because they often skip critical steps such as understanding the nature of the problem, and getting buy-in from stakeholders. An institution can usually weather the whims of a poor leader and carry on after that leader has come and gone. About the only way an institution can be dramatically changed in a top-down fashion is through an equally dramatic shakeup of the overall structure. Rather than telling people how to change what they’re doing currently, the organization is radically altered: large numbers of people may be terminated; entire departments eliminated, split, or consolidated; management structures disrupted and reorganized; there are many possibilities, but the point is that such sweeping changes cannot be accomplished via directives passed down the existing organizational structure.

Of course, it’s naive to assume that shaking up an organization is risk-free. Ambitious reorganizations can position a company for explosive growth, or sound its death knell. Layoffs and restructurings can build resentment and sow chaos in government organizations. But such crises, whether unheralded or purposefully created, offer the perfect opportunities for instituting major changes. To keep those changes from sealing the organization’s fate, however, reverting back to complacency cannot be allowed. A culture of change and continuous improvement, once put in place, must be sustained to stay relevant and effective.

It is often said that change is the only constant. If that’s the case, then change is survival. Institutions that refuse to adapt, refuse to respond to the changing needs of people and firms and depend on them, cannot function effectively. Even if they survive, they may better resemble a shambling monstrosity masquerading as organization, and linger on unless and until something more refined and responsive delivers the deathblow.

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James

James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Institutional Resilience

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