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Breaking Norms Is Hard to Do

2009/10/20

NextStage: Predictive Intelligence, Persuasion Engineering, Interactive Analytics and Behavioral Metrics This post first appeared as a comment to a post titled “Organizations Don’t Retain What They Learn” by Joseph Carrabis.

Organizations are, well, organized. They have stuff to do, ways to do things, people to do those things, and some mix of formal scribbles and group folkways to bring people into the frame and to keep them centered. This works fine until things change outside. Then either the group has learned to see how to deal with new things, or it decides it can ignore the change as not related to its operating assumptions, or it errs in what can be ignored and it dies.

Interestingly, the more successful the group, the more risk it runs of having internal rules of the road that may not connect with new paths in the world around it. The larger the successful group, the longer it can ignore vital changes—it simply eats up its resources and its seed corn. In effect, groups have momentum, much like a rolling stone in physics.

But if a group finally rolls down to the mud flats in the valley and has no rope to pull out of the muck, it’s done.

So the real test of an organization is whether it has built in a design factor for continually questioning itself. A key issue is its understanding of why it exists and whether it sees its value-added as stemming from working in a sustainable way with continually evolving surroundings, or merely from seeking the cheapest way to continue one foot after the other by piling onto its past experience.

Large groups have a tough time adding value in new circumstances because it requires spending people and treasure against unknown returns. Financial people hate this. If a firm is heavily leveraged, financial people swing a big club, and it’s hard to take a chance on doing something not closely linked to what’s gone before. A big part of the current context is the fact that today much activity is unusually highly leveraged as borrowing looms ever larger in organizations and the demand side. This financial lens isn’t just businesses and consumers.

Armies are known for fighting the last war until the current war becomes a threat. Even if it’s not really successful, an army that stays funded while responding in marginal ways to new situations will keep on doing what it does until it bleeds to death by dribbles. In the same vein, if a company or a nation does not want to reframe its assumptions as its context moves out from under it, then there will be survival problems. Only after trying desperately not to change, will norms be challenged. And then there’s no guarantee that the new perspective will in fact be an improvement.

GM tried new battery technology. Earlier it tried new labor and car operations with its Saturn unit. In both cases it was not able to adapt its organizational norms to new market and physical environments.

Nations have similar issues with norms. Shortly after adopting new norms of political process and behavior, the US set up sedition laws in the 1790s in reaction to destructive tactics by new political parties, which had not been expected to develop. In a similar manner, in the past few years the US has come to see due process as an inconvenience in the face of new dangers.

Breaking norms is hard to do in all organizations. Wisdom in doing so is even harder to assess while a team is in the middle of things. The only norm that remains essential is the willingness to see value in new information, parallel value in adapting systemically, and fundamental value in fair rules of behavior while clearly and expeditiously recognizing what is no longer – or never was – effective and sustainable.

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