Autonomous

A comment I left at The Passive Voice, reproduced here for possible discussion:

Look at any dysfunctional corporate culture (and I use ‘corporate’ in the broadest sense; this applies to governments, churches, and armies as well), and there are at least two things you are certain to find:

1. Systems that are inadequate because they are autonomous. Nobody can design a set of rules to cover every possible contingency, and if they ever did, someone would immediately come up with a new contingency that the rules did not cover. (Call it Gödel’s Law of Bureaucracy.) But when the system and its rules are allowed to make the decisions, when people say to sensible proposals, ‘We can’t do that because it’s against policy,’ the whole organization becomes frozen in the way of doing things that was enshrined at the time the rules were written.

2. Systems that are autonomous because people are lazy and afraid. Rocking the boat requires effort and courage; doing anything new requires effort, courage, and creativity. It’s easier and safer to just show up, put in your hours, do your job as defined by the existing rules, and collect your pay. So people hire out bits of themselves – their employable skills, narrowly defined – and leave the rest at home: not only their courage and creativity, but their enthusiasm, their best efforts, and in too many cases, their conscience as well. How many people do things at work that they know are stupid, because they are going along to get along? How many people acquiesce in doing things that are downright wrong? If they brought their whole selves to their work, they would not do these things; but they leave behind whatever part of themselves might conflict with the system and the rules, and — we see the results.

‘When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.’ —Charles Williams.

Comments

  1. Those might explain a good bit of why “Given enough time, all organizations appear to be run by the agents of their enemies”.

    As soon as I saw the word “autonomous”, I thought of the Williams quote.

    • Those might explain a good bit of why “Given enough time, all organizations appear to be run by the agents of their enemies”.

      Oh, that’s a very good point.

  2. How many people do things at work that they know are stupid, because they are going along to get along?

    I’m more familiar with the other side of the coin– people NOT doing stuff, because it is “stupid.” (The overlap with “involves work for me, personally” is amazing, yes.)

    I call it the other side of the coin rather than the opposite problem because my theory goes that those folks have been rewarded for that behavior because they mostly break the rules that really are dumb, or their not doing it is hard to find in the nest of dumb rules.

    The solution is to be small enough that you can actually enforce “this guy has good sense in this area, follow him.” Hard to get folks to do, though, because that can be abused. It depends on the quality of people. The abuse tends to be a lot more personal and thus easier to identify.

  3. Stephen J. says:

    “But when the system and its rules are allowed to make the decisions, when people say to sensible proposals, ‘We can’t do that because it’s against policy,’ the whole organization becomes frozen in the way of doing things that was enshrined at the time the rules were written.”

    The key is to be able to tell policy from principle — the protocols which are intended merely as means to the organization’s ends vs. those which enshrine and preserve those ends in themselves. Much as it might bring in more money otherwise, I can’t exactly fault a vegan restaurant owner for saying to annoyed but oblivious would-be customers, “But we just don’t serve meat here, folks.”

    Much dissidence, both current and historical, from the Church can be boiled down to a fundamental disagreement with the Magisterium over what constitutes Church policy vs. Christian principle, which is why I tend to have a little more sympathy for the “That’s not our policy” response. Too many people deliberately try to exploit the confusion between the meanings of “That’s not the way we do things” and “That’s not what we do.”

    • This is true. However, in the truly dysfunctional systems, I have often found people using ‘That’s not the way we do things’ as an excuse for refusing to do anything at all. In such cases, ‘what we do’ becomes equal to nothing, and one inevitably wonders why these buffoons are permitted to continue drawing their pay.

      • Because getting rid of them constitutes doing something.

        • Yes, but who is paying for this perpetual kindergarten? It’s vexing but understandable when it happens in government. When it happens in private business, I honestly wonder how a firm can get as sclerotic as all that without running out of money.

          • Big companies have a lot of inertia– some divisions may be productive, even as the low-quality administration is growing.

          • Craig says:

            Large bureaucracies are prone to so many inefficiencies that I’m periodically amazed that they seem to be the best large-scale organization humanity has ever come up with, but there it is.

            When I hear about what things are like inside various large companies (not from personal experience, but from people I know), it’s remarkable the extent to which they have really stupid standard practices — but not all the same kind of stupid: it’s different for every industry. The ones I’ve heard about include publishing, pharmaceuticals, insurance, air travel, and telecommunication.

          • Maypo says:

            I worked in large corporations (both AT&T and IBM) for almost 20 years until joining a small consulting company. In my view, the large companies succeed largely due to a very small number of very dedicated employees that “do what is necessary” based on their very specific knowledge in their area of influence. They ignore established harebrained procedures when they get in the way, or “work the system”. God help the large company that gets rid of the small set of effective workers. Once that happens nothing can save it.

Speak Your Mind

*