How our structures shape us

If you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time.

This quote from Geary Rummler and Alan Brache in Improving Performance, sums up many of the symptoms of hierarchical systems, whether they be schools, businesses or prisons.

I believe that the great work to be done at the beginning of this century is to create new organisational models that reflect our humanity. Efficiency and effectiveness are not enough, and in many cases have become mechanistic. It’s time to discard industrial management models that emphasize command and control and ensure that individuals at all levels have opportunities to engage in and question the system.

What happens when we don’t question authority? Let me re-quote this article on ABC’s recent re-enactment of the Milgram Experiment:

One of the subjects in the television program was a 7th grade teacher who explained that she didn’t stop shocking the learner because as a teacher she had learned when a student’s complaints were phony. I thought to myself, “Has she electrocuted many students?”

The teacher asked the researcher, “There isn’t going to be any lawsuit from this medical facility, right?” When told that the teacher was not liable, she replied, “That’s what I needed to know.” It is however worth noting that this was after she induced the maximum shock and the learner demanded that the experiment be terminated.

In this interview, Dr. Philip Zimardo discusses the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, where students played their roles as guards or prisoners and abuses started within 24 hours:

But on the second morning, the prisoners rebelled; the guards crushed the rebellion and then instituted stern measures against these now “dangerous prisoners”. From then on, abuse, aggression, and eventually sadistic pleasure in degrading the prisoners became the daily norm. Within thirty-six hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown and had to be released, followed in kind by similar prisoner breakdowns on each of the next four days.

As Churchill said, “First we shape our structures, and then our structures shape us”. This reminds me of the question about who is the most important person on board a ship. Is it the Captain, the Navigator or the Engineer? Actually, it’s the Architect, because the initial design influences everything else.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you cannot change the way things work in an organisation. The problem may be the organisational model itself and it may be better to leave and create an alternative model than to help keep a flawed one going.

5 Responses to “How our structures shape us”

  1. Aaron

    Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you cannot change the way things work in an organisation. The problem may be the organisational model itself and it may be better to leave and create an alternative model than to help keep a flawed one going.

    I think there are many organisatonal workers within the system who intuitively understand this, but so many suffer from not knowing how, in a very real and practical way, to create this change. With families to feed and bills to pay, how does the average teacher, for example, leave an established institution to create something more humane?

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  2. Harold

    I think that you would have to plan how best to escape the system, and it might take some time. In the meantime, teachers could help the students to think for themselves. Carrying around copies of books like, “Teaching Defiance” or “The Homework Myth” might start some interesting conversations at school.

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  3. CircleReader

    This is what makes me distrust “highly qualified teachers are the key” types of school reform proposals. Improving the skills of teachers – or letting them improve each other’s skill – is great, but it won’t make much difference until we ask those teachers to play a different role in a different sort of system.

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  4. John Baxter

    Good intro to these two experiments.

    It’s possible to be clearer about what they establish though. These experiments are about role and authority first and foremost – though yes they demonstrate how readily we can be shaped by structures we’re within.

    To me, the title and by line – i.e. structures and systems – speak to different phenomena. Still completely agree with your thesis, but examples like Senge provides in the Fifth Discipline of perverse macro-results in a supply chain

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  5. John Baxter

    (… I meant to say…) Despite reasonable behaviour at the micro level, in the example mentioned in my last comment – this seems a better example to illustrate the role of systems and structures. If less dramatic 🙂

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