Organizational architecture

Why do people do bad things? Is it because they have to? Here is Gary Stager discussing a re-enactment of the famous 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 with Guy Kawasaki, 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.

German researchers have recently released horrendous stories of what went on with regular soldiers during the Second World War. As der Spiegel notes: “Newly published conversations between German prisoners of war, secretly recorded by the Allies, reveal horrifying details of violence against civilians, rape and genocide”.

In this report from Science News we learn that moral talk is cheap:

When faced with a thorny moral dilemma, what people say they would do and what people actually do are two very different things, a new study finds. In a hypothetical scenario, most people said they would never subject another person to a painful electric shock, just to make a little bit of money. But for people given a real-world choice, the sparks flew.

But when there was cold, hard money involved, the data changed. A lot. A whopping 96 percent of people in the scanner chose to administer shocks for cash.

It seems it’s not just authority, but money (from which we can derive a form of authority) that may drive us to do immoral things.

Part of the answer lies in the concluding paragraph of the der Spiegel article:

The morality that shapes the actions of people is not rooted in the people themselves, but in the structures that surround them. If they change, everything is basically possible — even absolute evil.

I have often quoted Winston Churchill, and it’s most appropriate here – “First we shape our structures and then our structures shape us”.

Adding new programs, such as diversity training, will not address structural issues. Organizational architecture, which should be a blend of the best from our management disciplines and neuro-sciences, is what’s really needed. My observations over several decades show that most people work within structures without really thinking about them. For our future, and our humanity, we need to change this. What kind of foundation is your organization built upon?

12 Responses to “Organizational architecture”

  1. Luciana Annunziata

    Hi Harold,
    This reflection is most necessary theses days. I´ll give you just a couple of reasons:
    1. there is an assumption that an organization is made by its people and the “organization” itself does not exist as an entity. This is usually linked to a discoursedesigned to foster protagonism that might be so misleading. Yes, an organization carries an architecture, which has ebedded ethics and aesthetics atributes. As a person enters an organization, he or she tries to blend into its culture in search for a sense of belonging. “We shape the structure AND the structure shapes us.”It is a recursive process where the structure has a fundamental role.
    2. We have a great crisis in spaces such as the school, where violence is a big issue (we had our first gun attack by a student in Brazil last week). Bullying is a systemic problem, not a psychological problem solved solely by the treatment of the agressor. Are we designing social spaces for violence and not for love without noticing it?
    Organizational architecture is a subject to be revisited under the lights of emerging theories on the importance of the harmonization of power and love with a systemic and complex view, such as Dr Maturana´s and Adam Kahane´s recent approaches.

  2. Dan Pontefract

    To further the Churchill analogy, it goes without saying that one might have to ‘renovate’ within an existing structure or, more than likely, build an ‘addition’ to the existing foundation.

    Burning down the house, although a good song, doesn’t work.

  3. Jon Husband

    .. what Harold said 😉

    And I also think Luciana’s premise and points are critically important for our societies and the human beings that live in them, as we continue to hurtle headlong into the unknown future together

  4. Greg Waddell

    Great post! One thing I take from this is that we must be very wary of politicians who want to “totally transform” our society into some new model after their own likeness. Historically, it has been these types of Utopian social visions that have led the way to oppressive structures that can quite literally turn normally cultured and upstanding citizens into beasts.

  5. Simon Fowler

    This is a very interesting post, Harold.
    I think it’s definitely a both-and, human hearts and structures. No structure is immune from humanity’s lust for power or our longing for freedom from the influence of certain ‘others’. Lust for power over others & desire for absolute freedom from the influence of others are just gross distortions of our capacity to influence one another and our ethical autonomy. Unless we cease to be human, there is no utopian structure, planned or emergent (not that you’re expecting a utopian structure). And I suspect the very structure that might be best for collaborative, purposeful, scalable endeavour, may be the most vulnerable to our evil.

    But I may go and contradict myself here in that I think there is a way of thinking and “structuring” human institutions that holds promise for the future of humanity, and that is one rooted in relationships (duh! I know!). We firstly need to recognize the fundamental truth that human flourishing lies in the quality of our relationships – individual, family, neighborhood/tribe, organization, nation, globe. Only in the context of those different relationships can we appreciate the best expressions & constraints of power and freedom. Then we need to consciously rethink all that we do, and how we do it, through that lens. Big, economically efficient, environmental sound prison accessible to 6 major cities? What’s the impact on relationships with spouses, children, friends because it’s so far from them and it’s too expensive to stay nearby? Shareholders & Directors – what responsibilities do they have to relationships of a company with all its stakeholders (vendors, customers, employees (& their families), neighborhood etc,)? Criminal justice – what does the almost exclusive focus on punishment do for the relational impact of crime? Impact of working hours & methods on families?

    I’m associated with a non-profit in the UK that has been working with this thinking for years, building on a model of Relational Proximity (communication, time, knowledge, power & purpose) that has great analytical, explanatory & instructive power. Your post convinces me it’s time for this to bear fruit.

  6. Larry ODonnell

    i suppose the real question is why do we allow brutality to continue to exist? and the answer is, we’ve never calculated the true and real price ~ whatever anybody was paid to commit any atrocities, well, it’s always a deceptively well intentioned miscalculation of the true costs… ask the German people, ask the survivors of the holocaust ~ the military pay has already been spent, the stain on humanity lasts generations… in the USA we are still reeling from the ripple effects of the Civil War ~ think about it ~
    (one hint of the true cost of brutality is to calculate lost productivity related to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome –on both sides– which replicates itself through generations of dysfunctional families.) …and we do all of this for money?

    As the Chinese say, “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

  7. Simon Fowler

    @Harold – yes, that’s it. Michael Schluter. The book by Schluter & Lee that outlines the model is The R Factor (1993). I’ve been working more & more closely with Michael the last couple of years . In fact through Michael the nascent non-profit I’m part of is now associated with others from the UK, Australia, Sth Africa, Malaysia, Singapore & Hong Kong, to promote relational thinking. Through the South Africa group he’s piloting a Relational Health Audit with 5 top listed companies on the South Africa Stock Exchange. They have a legal obligation this year to report on stakeholder relationships and they’re using an assessment built off the Relational Proximity model.

    @Jon – thanks for that link, very interesting, and yes I think she’s hitting on the same point. I’ll be very keen to compare her “Virtual Distance Index” with the Relational Proximity model. I reflected on some research into effective virtual teams here – part of a 30-day blog series I did last year examining various aspects of life through the Relational Proximity lens.

  8. Tim Harrap

    Dan said “build an ‘addition’ to the existing foundation”.

    For me an addition to an existing foundation is called underpinning. I’ve actually done this on a building, it isn’t easy and it’s not a pretty sight!

    Back to the metaphor: if the structure needs such drastic action as to require underpinning one has to query the “powers that be” who might invest in such an expense to shore up a crumbling edifice. They may have convinced themselves that the structure will be maintained by such work but actually those they consider to be necessary to the continued functioning of the structure may well have left – exit stage left.

    This is the problem we face, particularly in the “West”, when the whole edifice upon which we operated has shown so much shoddy workmanship. This leaves the arena open to extremism as participants who control resources creating “underpinnings” and ” demand” continued participation in the house of cards as opposed to the other extreme which shouts the “emperor has no clothes”.

    There is an immense gap between these two views which is allowing for seeds of new ventures to burst forth on the ground that’s cleared. Sadly the stones and brickbats will continue to fly.


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