Organizations are strange beasts

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Little Eichmann’s.

Henry Mintzberg made the point that whether we like it or not, we live in a society of organizations. We are born in them, registered, and then educated by them so we can eventually work in them. They supply us with necessities, govern us, harass us, and finally bury us. Despite that, few people really understand them.

He proposed organizations cluster around types of environment, size, age, whether power within them is centralized or not, and the extent to which employees are able to control and coordinate their own tasks.

This creates a spectrum from tightly controlled jobs and supervised employees with centralized power at one end, to employees with the freedom and power to act and coordinate themselves, and functional power at lower levels of organization at the other. The former is mechanistic, traditional, and more stable, and the latter more complex, and therefore fluid with less managerial control, and several variations in between.

Larry Greiner published an article in the Harvard Business Review in 1972, describing a model for how organizations grow. He didn’t say this, but as organizations grow, they become increasingly more complex which creates challenges. Small start-ups inevitably become more structured as they grow bigger, and eventually bureaucratic, which slows growth. Many interpret this as the natural evolution of organizations, but, as Darwin argued, it is more a case of adapting to changing circumstances, which, in similar contexts, seems to take on similar patterns.

If you superimpose Greiner’s model on Mintzberg’s, a contradiction emerges; as organizations grow and become more complex over time, management becomes more pervasive and with it a drive for seeking stability through centralizing power and control. Innovation and decision making slows down, which is the opposite of what is required in complex constantly changing environments. I interpret Greiner’s final crisis of growth as the way organizations grow creates structures that make them unsustainable in complex environments.

The same dilemma holds for leadership style and organizational culture. The more complex organizations become, the more they need permissive and facilitating leadership, but what bureaucracies create instead is autocratic and political leadership, which is the opposite of what is needed. And more complex organizations need a more communal culture, but end up with the mercenary and militaristic cultures of bureaucracies.

This discussion is particularly relevant to the dominant role of bureaucracies in a country like Canada, and particularly in health care, which, as Mintzberg said, is so much part of our lives, we accept them and the dysfunctional conditions they create unquestioningly, or believe the dysfunctional bureaucracy will cure itself like a surgeon removing its own appendix. Fact is, they fear the pain and can’t, and won’t do it.

Bureaucracies have many problems, I’ll highlight two. Based on his research, Jackall showed most bureaucracies are political, and playing politics is more important for advancement than doing your job well. Above the waterline, we pretend it’s about the task, below the waterline rages a knife fight in the dark. Meetings, strategies, plans, and memos are just props for the fight.

The second is, due to their culture and sheer size, most bureaucracies become impersonal, and what matters more is doing my job than doing it right. Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann’s defense was I’m just a minor bureaucrat following orders when he was asked why he didn’t do anything to stop trains running to extermination camps. The term “little Eichmann’s” refers to the collective damage and sometimes immoral consequences of seemingly harmless actions by many small bureaucrats, which is enabled by the anonymity and lack of personal connection of big organizations. All of us have experience of being snarled up in red tape, which are rules and regulations that once upon a time maybe have had a purpose, but not longer has, and then become tools of coercion.

Dunbar’s rule says humans evolved mentally to accommodate a maximum of around 150 meaningful social relationships. Once you breach that number, relationships become mechanical and less meaningful, which is precisely the problem in bureaucracies. There is an example of a company that splits once a unit grows to more than 100-150 employees, and it works very well. The bureaucracies we live and deal with are sized in the thousands, which has social consequences.

The component parts of a health care system include anything from a single physician and receptionist to mega-sized hospitals and bureaucracies which planners treat as if they are all the same. Dunbar’s rule and Mintzberg and Greiner’s models say that’s not true, and that there is a zoo of different organizational types and matching leadership styles, cultures, and relationships, which significantly increases the challenge of planning for or changing the industry. One size fits all solutions create a lot of poorly dressed people in the crowd, and they don’t feel good about it.

The staggeringly complex organizational context also suggests, instead of the current bureaucratic model struggling with Greiner’s crisis of complexity, we need a communal cooperative culture in which people have a great degree of power at the coal face to make decisions about their tasks, and a leadership style empowering them. More importantly, change must come about by supporting them with the resources they need to make things better.

We must quit dealing in generalizations and start looking at appropriate solutions to contexts that differ from place to place in terms of needs, resources, and organization. I believe people on the ground would embrace the opportunity to do this, and succeed most of the time, but asked many years ago; who will change our leaders and planners, and I still don’t have the answer to that. The fundamental problem is the political nature of large organizations, and I have yet to find any approach or solution able to circumvent that. As Lord Acton said, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Prague Spring’s and Tienanmen Square protesters don’t last long under the heel of bureaucracies.