September 1, 2021
I’ve been reading Philip Ball’s Critical Mass, which is a fascinating read on the bridging of physics and sociology into a kind of social physics. In talking about how certain systems organize, he included a quote by U.S. economist Herbert Simon that caught my eye:
“I retain vivid memories of the astonishment and disbelief expressed by architecture students to whom I taught urban land economics many years ago when I pointed to medieval cities as marvelously patterned systems that had mostly just “grown” in response to myriads of individual human decisions. To my students a pattern implied a planner in whose mind it had been conceived and by whose hand it had been implemented. The idea that a city could acquire its pattern as naturally as a snowflake was foreign to them. They reacted to it as many Christian fundamentalists responded to Darwin: no design without the Designer!”
In organizations that have been around a while, there is often a belief that the processes and procedures that exist have been developed to support specific goals or fit within an overall strategy. In other words, they have been “actively” designed. After all, the thinking goes, why would we be doing it this way unless it was the best way possible?
The reality, however, is that many times the processes of an organization, and even the general culture, are not the result of any specific policies, but simply the result of time. Like an inefficient path that has been cut across a grass field, there comes a point where people no longer question whether the path is best and simply except it as a given and follow it. This can lead to not only economic inefficiencies for the organization, but also severely hamper morale, which in turn reduces the sense of empowerment and intrinsic motivation that is necessary to drive innovation.
One way of dealing with passive design is to conduct internal process and procedural audits. Only when there is actual data on how inefficiencies are impacting the organization can a real dialogue be initiated with all of the parties involved. Once an open two-way dialogue exists, it’s possible to actively design procedures and policies that help move the organization towards its objectives rather than pull it away.