How vulnerable are organizations?

Written on June 21, 2007 by Ianna Contardo in Strategy

In a reflection on the environmental changes happening around and within organizations, I came across a relatively old article. It is the fabulous yet rather unknown piece by Karl Weick on the collapse of sensemaking, an Administrative Science Quarterly paper (1993). Change management in strategy represents a fundamental topic. Its purpose consists in deeply analyzing actions and reactions between organic structures, i.e. organizations and the space in which these unravel, whether their sector, industry, market, internal environment or others. More and more, however, this analytic process meant to bring us closer to a satisfactory, controllable decision making path has forced academics and practitioners alike to question the rational boundaries within which organizational theory is debated.
Once more, my critical or “literary” vein (see the blog on the ZMET approach to strategic marketing) wishes to draw your attention in this other blog to a route that can be located in “contextual rationality” (White, 1988; reed, 1991) or a more emotionally-rooted explanation of phenomena on change.
Why are organizations vulnerable and where do their weaknesses come from? Simply stated, vulnerability can be described as those moments of uncertainty that threatens the existence of a given structure. We could compare organizations to “animals” which need to survive in an eco-system, and we as observers can thus notice their physical – read normally financial – appearance that either improves – the species reproduces itself – or extinguishes itself – usually because from a Darwinist lens they have not been able to adapt or have suddenly succumbed to the forces of changes they did not anticipate.

The purpose of answering the above question, even only tentatively here, is to focus not just on the structure or the organization’s financial results as a means to assess the health of the organism, but also to look more seriously at the internal and more directly behavioral or psychological processes that lead to the delicate moments of vulnerability. Organizations are vulnerable because reflexively, their structures have an immediate impact on the more frightening feelings assimilated by the individuals that subsist within these hard shells we call hierarchy, roles, procedures and even trust mechanisms communicated through established models of rationality, leadership and power.
Accordingly when the resemblances of the structure changes and individuals have difficulty in “re-cognizing” it – that is mentally processing the new meaning – they find themselves in a moment of emptiness. This cosmology even as Weick calls it, can be deadly to the ability of the structure to recompose itself since people lose sight of the purpose, miss their acts as in the Freudian explanation of cognitive difficulty (acte manqué), and therefore behave by retrieving into their own world impeding the reconstitution of what is an encompassing structure protecting the group rather than just the individual.
Dinosaurs missed the opportunity to escape from the devastation of a meteorite. They lacked the ability to reconstitute their species in other surroundings because they were to slow in reacting and reforming the group somewhere else. Similarly, when organizations are void of the ability to face their threats and enter in a panic mode – where role systems lose their meaning for example, or where the strategic intent is counter intuitive to a past track record – organizations enter the dangerous sphere of a void in sense making.
Panic is nothing else but the disintegration of the group. Each individual is only solicitous on his own account with little consideration for the rest. In other words, all emotional ties to the group that normally made the danger seem relatively small cease to exist, and that cessation provokes a situation in which the very structure disappears. With little or no structure, chaos takes place and completes the work of destroying any reminiscence of unity that could provide the solution to those initial threats. The means to cope become primitive and the organism reverts to a flight mode versus what could be a more stable fight mode.
Next question therefore reads: how do we avoid panic in organizations to recover sensemaking and thus prevent structural disintegration?


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