Organization as an impossibility
Posted On 24.04.2021
In “Conversations about Thinking
” Merab Mamardashvili
talks about the impossibilities that are a key part of human existence: thinking, consciousness, goodness, and so on. Impossibilities are things that are impossible, but they nonetheless exist. I will not repeat his argument – it is better to learn ideas directly from the author. Instead, I want to share the idea inspired by Mamardashvili: an organization as an impossibility. This post does not include any practical examples or tools – it’s just my reflections on that idea.
Imagine what it would be like to operate a huge container ship, like the Evergreen that blocked the Suez Canal
a while ago. You turn the steering wheel and…. nothing happens. After a while – perhaps seconds, perhaps tens of seconds – you feel that the ship started changing its course. You return the steering wheel back to neutral, and…. the ship still turns, and turns… And now the course has changed more than you planned. You turn the wheel in the opposite direction to compensate for the excessive turn and get on the intended course, and…. the ship continues to turn in the initial direction. Then the course stabilizes, and after a few seconds it begins to change in the opposite direction. Something similar happens when trying to change the speed the ship. It is not surprising that to become a captain of ships of such size, you need a very extensive training and a very long time to gain experience on less complex ships. The captain learns proactive control: turn the steering wheel far enough in a given direction, return it back to its initial position without waiting for the full change of the sip’s direction, and let the inertia to do its job.
A ship is a complex system, consisting of many elements, each of which can be just as complex in itself. Fortunately for the captain (and all those affected by shipping industry way or another), every element of the ship is predictable. The captain turns the steering wheel at a certain angle, this causes a certain change in the control unit, which, in turn, transmits a certain control signal to the motor that drives the rudder, and the motor turns the rudder a certain angle in a given direction. This predictability is based on the fact that each element of the system, in response to given control signal, produces the same output. Always. Of course, something may fail and start behaving differently than expected, in which case the faulty element is replaced with a working one, that is, acting as expected.
But imagine that every element of the system suddenly has the freedom of choice. How would the behavior of the entire system change? The captain turns the steering wheel at a certain angle, but the steering wheel decides to send a little larger signal to the control unit than usual. This causes an unpredictable reaction of the control unit: it decides that it would be better to transmit the opposite signal to the motor that drives the rudder. But this motor receiving a signal decides that it is better to conduct a self-diagnostic procedure immediately, and after that it will execute the order of the control unit, because it will stay there anyway. As a result, after an undefined time, the rudder turns at an unknown angle in an unpredictable direction. This could be a scenario for an apocalyptic movie: the parts of the machines gain free will, and humanity is on the verge of extinction: shipping, air traffic, transportation are stopped – everything that depends on the machines (that is, almost everything) is impossible.
This metaphor is great for describing an organization. There is a head of the organization who sets the direction. And this signal is transmitted further down through all levels of management up to frontline worker. But every level of management, every link in this chain, is a person with freedom of choice. Someone has more of this freedom, someone has less, but everyone has it. In the end, there is always an option to leave the organization.
considering this managing the organization, and its very existence is impossible! Organization is an impossibility even if we do not consider many other things that make the situation even more complex, for example the existence of malicious agents in the system, the sufficiency, or rather, the lack of competence of each employee to perform necessary function, and the presence of many simultaneously working communication paths (not just the formal hierarchy) that send control signals, often multidirectional and contradictory. And there is also a problem of necessary information availability – for various reasons, no one in the organization ever has all the information necessary for decision making. There is also the problem of the time gap between the current state of the system and the available information: imagine that in that ship, instead of portholes, there will be screens that will show an image of the external environment, but with a delay of several days or even weeks, and this delay will be different on different screens.
Why writing about this? What is the practical meaning of this idea? To remind oneself what it’s like to feel wonder. To feel wonder facing the existence of impossibilities, in our case, organizations. It is impossible, but here it is, it exists! Aristotle said that philosophy start in wonder that reveals to us our ignorance. Then we can see the extraordinary in the ordinary and ask questions that we don’t think of when seeing things as ordinary. Why should we ask such questions? To get closer to the truth! Without knowing the truth, it is impossible to create change, because this change will have nothing to stand on. By asking questions about how the organization exists, how it works, we can see the internal forces that drive the organization and connect its parts creating a whole. And through this you can also see opportunities for change, including the impossible change.