Thinking some more about organizational pathologies, I realized that there is another way to spot and potentially face the challenges presented by them: a crutch.
A crutch is a kind of organizational myth that had served this organization well in the past, and as a result of its own success, became so overused and over-relied upon that it’s actually doing more harm than good.
Crutches come in various forms and shapes. They could be processes, like the “Success Score Cards” and “strategic commitments” in the “Royalfield” story from Rumelt’s book. They could be strong cultural beliefs that, as they age, become effigy husks of their former selves, yet still capture enough imagination of the team to stick around. They could also be individuals. If a team can not make any significant decisions or forward progress without their leader in the room, this leader might be their crutch.
Crutches are rarely seen as crutches. They are typically viewed as foundational, immovable parts of the organization. How could we possibly do something other than Success Score Cards? That’s preposterous! Even when challenged with the mounting evidence of the pathological processes burning through the organization’s body, crutches are often viewed as the cure – sometimes leaving to weird instances of iatrogenesis, where the use of the crutch becomes the source of the problem (“Let’s do Success Score Cards harder!”)
If we are suspecting that our organization had developed a pathology, we could start looking at the bits of norms, culture, org charts, and processes that we hold in the highest regard and/or haven’t examined in a while. To know that we’ve found a crutch candidate, listen to how people react to our gentle poking at it. If the response is along the lines of: “What do you mean?!” or “Sure, it has flaws, but what else is there? I don’t know of anything better!” – we might have found a crutch. If closely examining a potential crutch suddenly feels like a career-limiting move, we are likely getting very close to the source. When spelunking for crutches, we are better off wearing a helmet and protective gear.
It is not hard to infer from this description that pathologies have a strong staying power precisely because spotting and pointing at a crutch is so deeply uncomfortable for the organization. Almost by definition, crutches are part of an organization’s embodied strategy. While spotting one is a significant breakthrough in itself, it is rarely sufficient to cure the pathology. Just pointing at it and loudly yelling “Look! I found it! Here it is!” is more likely to get us shunned than celebrated. Even if we are the leaders of this organization, our decisive attempts at surgery are likely to backfire.
Instead, my guess is that our approach might be the same as in any change of embodied strategy: nudging. Pathologies inflict suffering, and with suffering comes the innate desire for change. And that might just be the potential energy that our nudges need to succeed.