Organizational pathology

I was reading the latest book by Richard Rumelt, The Crux, and something clicked that I just had to write down. 

One of the reasons I enjoy Rumelt’s books, aside from that fiery, witty style, is that they are always packed with a wide variety of examples. This book is no exception, and, after a little while, a pattern emerged in my mind in all of the examples of failed applications of strategic thinking – and action. It’s a special case of “solving the wrong problem”, which I am giving a somewhat clinical term of a “pathology”. Here’s what I mean by it.

We all make mistakes. Making mistakes is an essential part of being human, and part of every organization. If we don’t make mistakes, we don’t learn, as I illustrated in the learning loop bits of the problem understanding framework. However, making mistakes in itself is a neutral activity: it can be either used to learn and create a better mental model of our environment, and it can also be used to lead astray, reinforcing a mental model that doesn’t generate accurate predictions. 

It is the latter case that piqued my interest, because in my experience, this is the one that most organizations – and people – struggle with. A pathology is a kind of unproductive mistake-making process that emerges under the following conditions:

  • There’s an obstacle that we believe we will encounter in the future. 
  • The expectation of this encounter makes our current situation discomforting.
  • There are two discernible classes of actions available to us: a) one that alleviates the discomfort of the current situation, and b) one that reduces the size or the likelihood of encountering the obstacle
  • The obstacle-reducing actions do not alleviate the discomfort.
  • The discomfort-alleviating actions grow the size of the obstacle or create an entirely new one.
  • Finally, – and this is key – under pressure to act, created by our discomfort, we consistently choose actions that alleviate that discomfort.

Whoa, that’s a lot of bullets. Let’s unpack them. 

I called this process a pathology because it often feels like a sort of thinking disease: it’s a thing that takes hold of us. Even when we are fully aware of what is happening, we still struggle to make it stop. Usually, an external intervention is necessary to make a change.

As I mentioned before, pathologies are part of the larger corpus of “solving the wrong problem” situations. It is not fun when we end up in a place where our diagnosis points us at something that we later realize is just an effect, not the cause of the problem. 

Borrowing a story from my past as a software engineer, I might assume that the rise in the latency metric in my code is due to some new regression. I would then spend a bunch of time – like a week! – trying to unsuccessfully hunt down this regression, only to notice that the metric suddenly moves back within acceptable threshold without any action on my part. It’s a heisenbug! After much more searching, I realize that my colleagues on the infrastructure team have been moving their code around and accidentally shifted how the metric is computed. Oops. Well, at least they put it back! Sure, I did get to “about to pull my hair out” state in the fruitless debugging session. But ultimately, once the culprit was found, I learned about yet another where problems can arise, and moved on. “Solving the wrong problem” of this kind tends to be frustrating, but highly educational.

Where pathologies differ is that they add an extra twist: solving the “wrong” problem both exacerbates the actual problem over time and provides a false sense of doing the opposite. These two factors often interlock. 

The exacerbation bit can come in many different forms, but here are the most common LEGO bricks they’re made of:

  • Backsliding, when the action taken as part of solving literally takes you in the opposite direction.
  • Entrenching, when the action reinforces some existing process or practice that needs to change to solve the actual problem.
  • Delaying, when the action is that of putting off dealing with the actual problem.

The false sense of moving forward often builds on these. For example, an entrenched habit can be rather comfortable. Sometimes the mere fact of doing something is, too – as the Politician’s syllogism goes: “we must do something – this is something – therefore, we must do this”. The key attribute to look for here is pain relief: something that reduces the discomfort of being presented with the problem.

The “Royalfield” case study, one of many in Rumelt’s book, particularly stood out for me as an example of a pathology. The author describes a multi-day strategic planning exercise that he attended. At this exercise, he observes folks following a well-entrenched process that involves “Success Score Cards” and “strategic commitments”. 

As the author interviews the executives, he starts realizing that none of the actual strategic challenges are being discussed. Instead, the rote motions of the process are driving the event. When he tries to raise the issue with the CEO, he’s chastised for distracting the participants from their Success Score Cards. The author notes that since that event, the company’s fortunes continued to dwindle in an unfortunate, but predictable way.

Here, we have all the elements of a pathology. There’s definitely an obstacle that the executives perceive and the discomfort they experience – aka “the problem”. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be holding this exercise in the first place. There are two kinds of actions they can take: start examining actual strategic challenges of the company, or follow the existing planning process. The process is already here and everyone already knows it, so the executives choose to follow it. So far, this looks like a “solving the wrong problem” scenario.

The pathology locks in when we add two final ingredients: first, the “Success Score Cards” and “strategic commitments” act as a powerful analgesic, giving executives the permission to stop worrying about the obstacle for a little while. “We did this planning thing, didn’t we?”

Second, we can clearly see how entrenching and delaying are in full force. The CEO’s nearly allergic reaction to even an idea of considering something different indicates that change will be exceptionally difficult for this company – and each such planning session delays the moment when the team must come to terms with the reality of the situation.

I imagined how even now, the executive team is still trying harder to make better, more effective Success Score Cards, and going to great lengths to ensure that the strategic commitments slide deck is breathtakingly dramatic – stuck in the pathological case of solving the wrong problem.

Now that I have this pattern outlined, when (or if) you read the book, I am guessing that it will be nearly impossible not to spot it, over and over again. And it is also my sincere hope that when you look around your team and organization, you will have a fresh way to notice this pattern around you. I even have this simple template for you:

  • What is the obstacle that is in front of your organization that perhaps evokes some discomfort?
  • What are some of the actions that your organization commonly takes to relieve this discomfort?
  • Are they the same actions that will also help overcome the discomfort?
  • If not, which ones seem to increase the size or the likelihood of encountering the obstacle (backslide, entrench, delay) or maybe creating a new one?

If there are items in the last list, it’s worth giving them a careful look. They might be one of those bad habits that subvert your team’s process of learning from its mistakes.

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