Organizational scar tissue

Here’s a quote from Jason Fried I found recently.

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to unlikely-to-happen-again situations.

Of course that’s not always true, but quite often it is. Policies can be a way of fighting the last war, defending the Maginot Line.

The entrance to Ouvrage Schoenenbourg along the Maginot Line in Alsace, public domain image from Wikipedia

When you see a stupid policy, don’t assume a stupid person created it. It may have been the decision of a very intelligent person. It probably sounded like a good idea at the time given the motivating circumstances. Maybe it was a good idea at the time. But the letter lives on after the spirit dies. You can make a game out of this. When you run into a stupid policy, try to imagine circumstances that would have motivated an intelligent person to make such a policy. The more stupid the policy, the more challenging the game.

Large organizations will accumulate stupid policies like scar tissue over time. It’s inevitable. Common sense doesn’t scale well.

The scar tissue metaphor reminds me of Michael Nielsen metaphor of organizational immune systems. Nielsen points to organizational immune systems as one factor in the decline of newspapers. The defense mechanisms that allowed newspapers to thrive in the past are making it difficult for them to survive now.

8 thoughts on “Organizational scar tissue

  1. I like the metaphor and your discussion. I posted a response on my blog, PanCrit. The main point was to talk about how to design an organization so that the policies can change when the circumstances change.

  2. Oh this is sooo right. And at some point organizations don’t scale well and the proliferation of scar tissue policies results in the org functioning as well as Poland circa 1989.

    There’s a certain antiselection with employees as well. Enough scar tissue leaves employees quite unhappy and frustrated. The highly mobile, high skilled talent will leave and leave behind only the unskilled who have no alternatives and the few skilled folks who are adverse to change. This can, if left unchecked, result in a talent death spiral.

  3. I did some consulting for the federal government a few years ago. The man I was working with asked me to FedEx papers to his home because if I sent them to his office it would take a week for him to get them.

    When he and I got into a discussion about government “trimming fat,” he said “Government cannot trim fat. It can only hack off limbs.” The explanation he gave was similar to your “talent death spiral” comment.

  4. That reminds me of a term I learned a few years ago when explaining to my neighbor that my analytics team found our corp IT group as such an impediment to productivity that we started running our own DB servers and wikis ‘under the radar’ My neighbor said, basically, “yeah, anytime IT gets cut in personnel or lacks skill then ‘shadow IT’ functions spring up when tech savvy users say ‘fuck corp policy I want to get my job done so I am going guerrilla.’ ”

    Hmmm.. I need to write an article on how the presence of ‘shadow IT’ or ‘guerrilla IT’ inside a company is generally indicative of an IT leadership failure.

  5. I’ve seen the “shadow IT” thing over and over. Your neighbor is exactly right. The folks who start shadow IT groups are just trying to get their job done. They don’t always know what they’re doing, but their heart is in the right place. Sometimes the guerrillas cause problems because they’re incompetent. But sometimes the guerrillas are very competent and an order of magnitude more efficient than official IT.

  6. Unquestionably the proliferation of mundane policies leads to system paralysis, which I understand is the topic of this post. To go off on a tangent, however, the popular belief about the Maginot line leaves absent an important lesson about contempt for the business of policy:

    De Gaulle was stationed in Poland when it was invaded and then wrote a book, Towards a Professional Army*, about the need for the massive and offensive use of tanks to protect France against Germany. The 90-something head of state, Petain, and the military establishment behind him, dismissed it by tradition (“dying by the sword”), although De Gaulle’s superior attitude did not help either. Ironically, in earlier times, colonel Petain had also been ridiculed for tirelessly advocating new warfare policies until he was able to prove his point on the battleground (WWI), unlike most of his peers. (*) A professional army did not become policy until the 1990s!

  7. I’ve actually heard this same reasoning raised to explain the preponderance of rules and laws in Torah. For example, the reason why there are so many admonitions against idol worship there can be interpreted that it was a big problem and kept reoccurring. Torah says (in “Lev Torah”) that you should “love your neighbor as yourself” once, but some 38 times tells to “remember the stranger” (“ger”) as in “Honor the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. Similarly, stop signs get put up at an intersection when enough bodies get carted away. I personally fear that we collectively will deal with global climate change, but only when enough bodies are carted away. Alas, the success of that response assumes the climate system doesn’t contain some bifurcation we trip over first ……

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