Organizations as Organisms: Building Systems with Intention


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While individual humans seem capable of improving their abilities incrementally, both during their lifetimes (learning, building better habits, developing systems to deal with repeated situations, etc) and intergenerationally (Flynn effect?), it is not obvious that organizations currently do so. Robin Hanson lists some common inefficiencies of organizations; these problems seem endemic and timeless. Furthermore, while some organizations can last a long time and continue to do well, it is not obvious that they get “better” in a general sense over time. Rather, we tend to see an effect where organizations become overly specialized and decay. A good goal, then, is to hone in on how these issues can be dealt with systematically.

What would be the ideal theme for a culture built for an organization motivated to survive and thrive in the long run? It would seem to be some sort of growth mindset analogue at the organizational level. Specifically, great care should be taken at being aware of, and steering, the creation of systems and norms (knowing that they will tend to be sticky over time) with long-term effects and viability in mind.

Ideally we would know what healthy policies and internal systems should look like and build those from the beginning, but alternatively we can also work backwards from current failure modes (linked above); trying to identify them within an organization and finding solutions that maximize long term benefits. It seems to be that algorithms are potentially well suited to this task, especially as more data is being collected which covers the progress of work, communication, decision making and conflict within an organization. Perhaps patterns can be found across similar situations, and solution mechanisms can be tested across equally many samples. The kicker is if these solutions can be reused across organizations.

Currently we find this problem identification and solution proposition role being served on an ad hoc basis by management consultants. It seems intuitive that if organizations make a more concerted effort to record and organize as much internal data as possible, this role can be performed more efficiently with more statistical techniques. Given working models of failure modes and solutions, it is then possible to build systems which steer themselves away from the failure modes in the first place.

gary

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