Organizations and the Asperger Syndrome

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Entreprise Asperger

Our organizations are in bad shape, this is no more a secret. No day passes without this statement being discussed, dissected, both by its causes and its effects, nor without someone stigmatizing the hierarchical and bureaucratic practices of many—too many—businesses, and presenting them as toxic vestiges of the structures that flourished and reigned in an era marked by the Industrial Revolution.

Usually, these analysis end with another statement: our organizations are ill-adapted to our hyper-connected era, and, to survive, they evidently need to transform themselves, to reconnect with innovation dynamics and restore human values. To reach these goals, or at least move forward in the right direction, we don’t lack principles and methods. Very few of them, however, have proven their value beyond the few examples we hear from workshops to conferences. Among the main reasons for what we might call a confession of impotence, we can mention the fact that, indeed, every company is unique, and that one-size-fits-all approaches are doomed. We can also also name the fact that many of these methods are prescriptive, and that we can no more apply ready-made recipes to what must emerge organically than we can decree a culture change.

Yet, although these reasons are decisive in explaining how very little progress has been made in organizational transformation, there is a fundamental question we barely address: do we look at organizations under the right angle? Most of the time, it looks like we consider them as islands, insulated from the rest of the society.

Gary Hamel has recently published a paper called “Top-Down Solutions Like Holacracy Won’t Fix Bureaucracy,” in which he pleads for organizing internal hackathons to develop and test novel ideas inside companies in a bottom-up manner. His approach is virtuous, of course, and highlights prescriptive methods’ inefficiency. But can we even envision defeating bureaucracy?

Bureaucracy is surrounding us, in our institutions, in the governance of our states, of our communities, in the infrastructure of our banks… Bureaucracy constraints and influence all and every corner of our private life, from access to housing to access to work, to healthcare, to education… All of the mechanisms that regulate our society are deeply tainted by bureaucracy, and, in this context, trying to free organizations from its internal hindrances without acting at the whole societal level is similar to trying to empty a goldfish bowl on the sea bed.

Among all evils currently crippling organizations, it might be important to distinguish between those, like bureaucratic pandemia, affect all aspects of human interactions, and those that are specific. This isn’t an easy task, as dysfunctions in all of our institutions are becoming more and more apparent. However, this is the only way we will gain the capability to allow for the emergence of the evolutionary path toward more human-centric organizations, and to cure, in the midst of a sick society, even sicker organizations.

If we consider enterprise as an organism, it is striking to see how much its behavior is similar to that of an individual suffering from what we until recently called the Asperger syndrome.

  • Communication disorders
    How else could we consider the fact that, in organizations, employees are supposed to adopt a different behavior from the one they have in their personal life? How may we explain the lack of appeal to creativity, to intuition, to informal problem resolution that characterizes so many businesses, as those are some core characteristics of human beings, that we express and use in our daily life? The ever-larger trench between corporate communication and behavior and our natural modes of networked communication cannot be easily described as other than pathologic.
  • Socialization disorders
    This is a category under which we find most of the evils of which we accuse organizations, and whose symptoms are strikingly similar to those exhibited by Aspergers:

    • Resistance to change (should we further comment?)
    • Behavioral stiffness, lack of recourse to intuition (pervasiveness of hierarchies and processes)
    • Obsessional fixation on specific domains (excessive financialisation, hyper-specialization of roles)
    • Difficulty understanding social interaction (maladjustment to complexity)
    • Difficulty understanding expectations from the neighborhood (lack of understanding of customers’ expectations)

Of course, considering organizations under the harsh light of behavioral and social anomaly doesn’t bring any answer to the important question of how to change a mostly outdated management model, but it brings up new options we have to consider in our thinking about organizational diseases. As it is the case with any sever psychic disease, you don’t “cure” it, you usually can’t. You rather act both on the symptoms the patient exhibits, to reduce them, and on the relationships between the patient and its environment, to ease them.

Managerial hackathons, as Gary Hamel suggests, lean management, practical application of design thinking or of wirearchy’s principle at the edge, are some of the methods that can help in reducing organizations’ internal disorders. However, they don’t deal with the two other dimensions of the problem: taming the bonds between organizations and the society, and tackling the bigger, wider society-wide problems, such as bureaucracy, that do not pertain to organizations by themselves. The latter are wicked problems, far beyond our reach, and that will, alas, require more than a lifetime to be solved. But how is it that nobody actually thinks of fixing organizations (or at least easing their structural problems) by looking at them from the context they are part of?

Imagine a society in which companies do not play the central role anymore. Part of economical exchanges would be under the responsibility of local and/or decentralized communities. The relationships between work and income would be loosened, allowing individuals to pursue personal projects without being enfeoffed to any organization. Utopia? Not anymore; peer-to-peer and local economy is developing at blazing speed, and the rise of blockchain-based projects such as Ethereum is giving a anew meaning to decentralization; unconditional and universal basic income is on the drawing board of more and more states. The next step, in fact, will be to define a new role of organizations, to benefit from an efficiency built over more than a century, without bearing the hassle of dealing with their autistic personality. This, is our main challenge for the years to come.

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