Introduction to the Organizational Paradox

The Organizational Paradox?

I know this one, I know this one…no, REALLY!

The thoughtful reader has already thought to wonder…what on Earth is this guy talking about? Do even he know? Smashing two words like organization and paradox together reminds some of us of those impenetrable acronyms for which the government in general and the military in particular are famous. We know what both words mean, but combine them and they seem to wander off together, into a desert devoid of landmarks. So let’s figure out what we mean, at least in this context.

Organizations are?

Webster defines organizations as administrative and functional structures formed for a particular purpose. Three things to note, here.

  1. Organizations have a purpose. That’s why they are formed in the first place. Somebody has a goal (or goals) in mind and they organize individuals to unite around those goals. Another way of looking at the “why” behind organizations is that they grow out of a need, perceived or real.
  2. Organizations, then have an administrative and an operational mission, hence, the use of the conjunction “and.” By definition, organizations have administrative function, generally coordinating the actions of the organization. And as noted earlier, they also have an operational structure—or a single structure with both administrative and functional activities vested therein.
  3. Organizations enlist individuals in pursuit of their goal(s). It is the goals that give rise to the organization and the organization’s goals will become the unifying focus of both the administrative and operational functions, if the organization is to prove effective.

So a paradox is…?

Resorting again to Webster, we discover a paradox is any of the following:

  1. A tenet, or statement advancing or containing seemingly contradictory conclusions or positions.
  2. An argument deriving self-contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises.
  3. A self-contradictory statement that at first seems true.
  4. In an individual, one who exhibits contradictory traits, tendencies or phases.

So at it’s core, a paradox is a contradiction, real or apparent.

Paradox is the counter-intuitive manifested in life…

What, then is the Organizational Paradox?

Specifically, how would (or does) an “organizational paradox” differ from any other paradox—if it does? By adding the modifier “organizational” to the general term “paradox,” do we not focus on the paradox relevant primarily to organizations? Intuitively, this feels reasonable. But reflecting on our own experiences with organizations, it doesn’t take us long to realize our collective behavior is riddled with paradox.

Organizations as we tend to think of them are collections of humans. Humans are a complex organism, each individual bringing his or her own constellation of experiences, foibles, failings, and yes, contradictions. Throw a bunch of human individuals together and you have multiplied exponentially the variables, not to mention the probable contradictions. A few examples of organizational paradoxes with which most readers will be familiar.

There’s Strength in Numbers

Ask a labor union why they organize & the answer may be a bit convoluted, but it usually gets around to “strength in numbers.” Hard to argue with, on the face of it.

Two people can get more work done in a day, than one alone can, assuming both know what they’re doing. Which suggests one of the organizational paradoxes we might explore is that, assigning more people to a task will not always get more done. There is a law of diminishing returns, we discover, applicable not only to personnel, but almost any resource.

More, we discover, is not necessarily better, leading to the logically paradoxical statement nearly everyone has heard at some point: “less is more.” This statement is the essence of paradox, containing a grain of truth—but it is a truth that is situational, and relevant within the context of a specific, measurable outcome. The law of diminishing returns, we realize, is task/goal oriented and requires us to be able to quantify both the resources assigned and the output at that level of resource allocation.

The Solution is often worse than the disease

Most everyone is for relieving traffic congestion on our highways and HOV lanes have proven to help—provided the implementation is sound. Take the example of placing the entrance to an HOV lane at the junction of two major interstate arteries coming together several miles outside of downtown, in a city whose name is redacted to protect the guilty.

On the surface of things, it made sense. Everyone was headed “downtown,” especially in the morning rush hour. So why not start the HOV lane where they came together to help ease the traffic problem going into the part of town where the traffic is at its worst? What could possibly go wrong? If you’ve been a commuter to a downtown area in any metropolitan area, you already know the answer.

As five or six lanes of traffic from each major freeway comes together, there was certain to be snarl as the freeways necked down and everyone jockeyed for “their” lane. Adding an HOV lane as yet another catalyst for lane changes, you had many near misses as some veered for the HOV lane while others angled to get off at the first exit after the freeways merged. Frequent accidents apart, is anyone surprised to hear that resulting traffic snarls were often worse than before the car pool lane was introduced?

In both foregoing cases outlined above, the quantitative solution didn’t necessarily solve. “The math” misled problem-solvers and was subsequently trumped by human behavior. The moral of neither story is that math-based solutions don’t work. They do. Rather the examples above demonstrate there are other (chiefly human) considerations that can frustrate purely mathematical solutions.

There are a bunch more organizational paradoxes. To mention just a couple more that tend to be organizational.

  1. The more control an organization attempts to exert, the less it tends to have. Humans resist being controlled “too much.” Which is why empires political, economic, religious or social are all inherently difficult to manage. How much control is too much, before you get “push-back”? Those the organization is trying to control will let them know—usually after it’s too late.
  2. The bigger the problem, the less obvious it is. This is particularly true in large organizations. The problem is often the organization itself, which means the problem is buried in the culture. Like the painting you bought twenty years ago that still hangs in your office, you rarely notice it, even if you look at it, every day.

I suspect most people get message. There are lots of them out there, and all of the foregoing tend to be organizational paradoxes. But they’re not the paradox that is the central paradox of this series. A fair question at this point would be: Okay, so to which organizational paradox do you refer? I thought you’d never ask.

Which Organizational Paradox?

If you’ve been tracking what I’ve been saying so far, then you know there are a lot of organizational paradoxes out there and you know why. Because organizations as we’re referring to them here are human creations, they are necessarily also as nuanced and variegated as everything else we do. But there are paradoxes and there are Paradoxes. It would not go so far as to suggest I’ve identified the one paradox to rule them all, I if you will.

But I think there is an organizational paradox whose fundamental Truth is powerful enough that it transcends garden variety paradox. What the paradoxes we’ve explored briefly thus far have in common is they are side effects of organizational behavior. But there is one paradox that is not a side effect: it is the reason we organize in the first place. Work with me, here.

Power and the Organization.

Earlier we observed that organizations tend to exist in the first place because there is strength in numbers. We also observed there are some exceptions and caveats. There are situations where more may prove to be too much. But most of us agree that by organizing around common goals, we can accomplish things that are beyond our capabilities as individuals. Our experience as a species has proven this to be true throughout history.

By organizing as we defined earlier into an entity with a purpose and structures in place to accomplish them, we become more than the sum of our parts. The concentrated, coordinated efforts of even average humans can overwhelm even the best efforts of an otherwise superior human to any of us. This is possible because when a number of men and women come together around a stated purpose (or objectives), they agree to work together to accomplish those objectives and contribute their power to the organization.

The Ultimate Power Source

In essence, they lend the organization their strength in order to help the organization accomplish its goals because they agree with the stated objectives the organization is pursuing. By adding their power to a structure either in place or forming, the resulting organization becomes more than it was. The addition of each individual resource, (human, financial or even fragment of information), each unit of power further strengthens the organization in some way.

Whatever the resource contributed, the pivotal contribution tends to be the self. Wealth, material and knowledge have their place, but the ultimate power source is human capital. It is only through the engagement of human capital that wealth, material, knowledge and yes, other human capital can be deployed. It has always been this way and for the foreseeable future, always will be.

There are indications that power is less human capital dependent than it was, say, before the industrial revolution or since the dawn of what Zbigniew Brzezinski referred to as the Technetronic Age. As he predicted in 1970 in his Between Two Ages, “Knowledge becomes a tool of power and the effective mobilization of talent is an important way to acquire power.” (Brzezinski, Zbigniew, Between Two Ages, Viking Press, 1972, p. 13). To what extent knowledge can be replace human capital remains to be seen.

Mounting evidence, however, suggests it is increasingly possible to substitute of human capital with strategic knowledge to achieve surprising results. Two salient examples are:

  1. The experiences of the U.S. military in Iraq during the second gulf war suggest in some cases, the judicious application of intelligence (processed knowledge) and advanced weaponry (more processed knowledge) can defeat numerically superior forces.
  2. Our recent experience with Russian interference in the 2016 election suggests it is at least possible to materially affect (if not determine) the outcome of processes heretofore considered inviolable with the strategic application of knowledge, augmented sparingly by human direction. 
  3. Author’s Note: To what extent the Russians had help in their interference in the 2016 elections remains unknown. What seems clear, however, is however it was done, it was a comparatively economical effort from the perspective of human capital, explaining in part why so much remains an open question, 8 months after the fact. As students of governance and power, all of us should be supporting exhaustive investigation, rather than dragging our collective feet. The implications of this experience are immense and ignoring them only magnifies the potential impact.

To whatever extent the experiences noted above are harbingers of the future, both carry with them a less obscure lesson. As organizations grow in size and strength, they take on a life of their own. In a future post, we will explore the stages by which that happens. For this post, it is enough to note that successful organizations eventually become powerful enough that the control once theoretically exercised by the members/constituents is attenuated.

Power to the people?

This brings us to the central organizational paradox to which we referred at the beginning of this post. Organizations initially derive their power from their members. Almost invariably, the recruiting process offers a measure of power as a result of membership in the organization. The “joiner” gets something of value as a result. An employee is compensated for his work. Money=power. The joiner of a political power gets (theoretically) more of a say in the political life of his/her nation. Voice + numbers + financial contributions = power. The joiner of a professional association or union gets an amplified voice in his/her society. Again, voice + dues + knowledge = power.

But as the power of the organization is swelled by the contributions of its constituents, the relative power of each single individual wanes. We all recognize this, but through familiarity we miss the irony of it. We made that organization what it is. It has now grown so much larger than we that it takes on a life of its own.

But as the power of the organization is swelled by the contributions of its constituents, the relative power of each single individual wanes. We all recognize this, but through familiarity we miss the irony of it. We made that organization what it is. It has now grown so much larger than we that it takes on a life of its own, controlled by people we don’t know and who don’t know us. The powers that be within the organization no longer care how each individual feels. They care about “managing” (or manipulating) collective opinion for the benefit of those in power. The individual or the relatively smaller body of 

individuals who drive both the narrative and the outcome for as long as they can manage those perceptions of their ultimate power source, their constituents in the organization.

They are no longer beholden to you and me. Their allegiance is now to a hypothesized constituency characterized by and enshrined in “big data.” At the more personal level for those in power, this is all subordinated to their best interests and camouflaged in the system of principals on which the organization was originally founded. These principals, however, take on mythical quality that survives the emerging reality, and is perpetuated by a communications strategy calculated to lull the rank and file to sleep.

This is the ultimate organizational paradox. We join (or in some cases form) organizations with the intention of leveraging the power of many to increase our own. We devote our energy, time, knowledge and in some cases, money to increase it, only to have the organization outgrow us and usurp the little power we have and hand it to someone we don’t even know.

It doesn’t happen overnight…

This paradox is operant in all organizations, to a greater or lesser degree. Should the organization prove successful long enough, the paradox will always take over eventually, unless it is stopped by people within or outside the organization. 

This is true whether we’re referring to political parties, businesses, charitable organizations or religions. Even your local homeowners’ association will exhibit this same tendency over time, but all organizations will, if they grow large enough. And the principal problem is that it looks like progress, while it’s happening. It takes time a considerable benefits accrue while it’s happening, leading us to see the organization as largely positive.

Most readers have already figured out the catch 22. In society, organizations are not optional. We absolutely require them in order for society as we know to function. As the species has overrun the earth, it is simply no longer an option to retreat into our individual cocoons or even into small enclaves. If we did, the interconnected world we’ve built would grind to a halt. So what can we do?

Cooperation or Coercion?

The answer is multi-faceted, I think and we’ll explore that as we go along. But I’m going to ask you bear with me as we examine how we got here in the first place. It really, truly matters. The study of history does not guarantee we will not repeat our mistakes. NOT studying it, however, almost guarantees we will make the same mistakes repeatedly. This is because the origins or organizations are deeply rooted in our past. They are literally coded into our DNA. Not organizing isn’t an option.

But how we organize, for what purposes and how we balance the power of organizations with the power of individuals is optional. It’s something we can control, provided we are watchful, perceptive and organize (that word, again) around the right principles. In the next few posts, we will take an intuitive look at how organized behavior may have evolved and trace its history.

We will watch organizations evolve along with us. As we will see, there are some inferences we can draw and from those inferences, derive conclusions about how we might recapture our own destinies. If that sounds melodramatic, you haven’t been paying attention. It is literally, a case of cooperation or coercion. That’s both the good news and the bad news. The choice is ours, but we don’t have a lot of time to make it.

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