A colleague once said of his rancorous department, “these people can’t be led.” Complex governance and diffuse decision making had crossed the line to create a Complex Legislative Organization (CLO). No one disagrees that appropriate process is important to an organization’s results, but at a certain point this wholly internal affair becomes counter-productive. Managing around this threshold is increasingly challenging in change and crisis.
Sadly, many CLOs evolve past this threshold into ineffectiveness because of mistrust. Functioning CLOs require social capital – norms of reciprocity, multi-strandedness, shared values, networks and so on – probably more so than most organizations. Trust is central when functioning depends on process rather than mission.
Some CLOs are historically or culturally established, like academic faculties or the Quakers, (the latter go so far as to emphasize collective intelligence.) Social capital grows with use and disappears when not used. There may be some kind of inverse relationship between mission-driven efforts and CLOs. The discipline of the marketplace seems to limit CLOs in business, but even size and cash may allow them to appear in the for-profit world.
Mistrust and declining social capital drive complexity into dysfunction. Tenured faculties can give rise to “a thousand points of no” –diffuse decision making that can eventually lead to a thousand chokepoints, which is ultimately where every individual has veto power over a decision. Dysfunctional CLOs are marked by an absence of social capital:
- Execution is delayed or defeated (Tom Peters recalls General Motors’ take on “ready-aim-fire” as “ready-aim-aim-aim…”)
- Context trumps performance
- External results disappear as the mO is consumed by the “meaningful Inside”
- Stasis overtakes agility and innovation is quashed
CLOs are unusually resistant to change, by their very nature, and can spiral inevitably still further into reinforcing loops that perpetuate this dysfunction.
Synthetic organizations probably provide the only remedy (a form of balancing loop), and then only temporarily. In crisis, planned synthetic organizations, because of manufactured trust, simplify CLOs by moving decision making and management back toward executive leadership for a time.
In CLOs, as useful as synthetic organizational solutions can be, they will probably face resistance. The inherent nature of these contexts advocates against changing a status quo precisely because the power balance pleases most of those involved. A serious disaster or crisis could generate an unplanned synthetic organization that might damage the situation still further. (Gang activity in South Central Los Angeles during the ’92 riots functioned as an illegitimate synthetic organization for a short time). CLS only solidifies the CLO.
- Planned synthetic organizations: an emergency operations center or change/crisis team within an organization.
- Executive committees: a longer-term form of synthetic organization, but with tighter boundaries on decision making. Boards use these in the absence of the whole, but the whole convenes for the big decisions.
- Task forces: they work, but temporarily. Sooner or later they report back to the CLO, where they can be crushed.
- Contrived constituencies: sub-divide existing chokepoints still further to dilute their power… ethically tenuous but sometimes necessary in survival mode.
- Work-around organizations: create related new organizations outside existing CLOs and transfer as much power as possible.
- Cancel tenure-type practices … again, a survival mode solution, guaranteed to splatter the walls and ceilings with blood and feathers.
- Cultural transformation: a huge challenge with generally poor odds.
- Skunkworks: these work as long as they have budgets and are permitted their own results.
- Re-catalyze to mission: essentially redirect corporate mindfulness to the mO.
Frankly, dysfunctional CLOs don’t promise a lot of hope. Most of the solutions above are temporary. The operative phrase in some of these is survival mode. In HAVUC terms, vulnerability exceeds the capacity of the organization to survive a specific threat.
If you’re leading a CLO consider 1 through 9 above, but also plan privately for the crisis that will come. If it’s bad enough and you survive it your organization may be ready for a new day.