Communication, Dynamic Equilibrium and Structural Stupidity of Organizations

A short reflection about Communication in Stupid Structures

TLTR: The total amount of communication in a system is stable – you either use it or loose it.

From a VSM practitioner’s point of view it is amazing to see the flow of information and the inherent communication structures of an organization. This is from my perspective one of the best insights the VSM can deliver: understand the interaction patterns of the system, including their underlying attributes like frequency, duration, invitation for the interaction, selection of participants, meeting style, decision making processes, economic dependencies, formal power… or the damn purpose of a gathering.


There is no way out: Dynamic Equilibrium of Constant Communications

A look through the lens of the VSM reveals on the one hand that communication makes up to 99,99% of knowledge work. No matter, if we spend time in a Steering Committee, or if one sits in front of an unwritten E-Mail: almost everything that is happening in Support- and Management-Functions is related to information gathering, evaluation and decision making (which triggers again new communications). The calendars are full of appointments and everyone is busy. Obviously meetings are inevitable, because any complex system needs inFORMATION. It must inFORM itself – otherwise it can not operate.

One could speak of a Dynamic Equilibrium of Constant Communications (DECC).These ongoing exchanges happen anywhere and anytime in a social system, no matter what you do. A favorite example for bad DECC Regulation is the case, in which the Board or Owner of a company decides (alone) to initiate a mayor shift in the structure of the firm, change of Business Strategy, or if parts of the Business are sold to competitors. In this context the “changed” organization will automatically fire its internal communication processes, because “the system” wants to understand what it means for it on a personal level and the organization as a whole. The communication will take place – that’s sure. So instead of letting a not-constructive discourse happen, it would be much wiser to channel the communication by designing and using platforms, forums, communities, Town Hall Meetings or whatever.

Therefore I dare to claim: It would be possible to engage in a systemwide discourse, which could lead to broader consent about the change, whilst keeping the motivation of the people high and letting them participate in the transformation process – to which extent could be still argued, but in the end I think that a little bit of participation is better than no participation at all (I admit, this is very simplified). There are a bunch of different formats available to engage and enter meaningful discussions – even with some hundred people at the same time! But as long as we have to deal with non-participative systems, one will never discover the human potential of an organization.

That’s why I can’t hear the argument anymore, that e.g. Scrum means more communication than in the good old times of the waterfall. Again: the communication will happen anyhow, even in the linear planning environment – latest in the moment, when the shit hits the fan and a plan is faced with “reality”. So one does not save time to communicate, if one tries to organize meetings with the typical “efficiency paradigm” and cutting the chances for contribution, participation and the inevitable dialectics. It won’t work, because the system will find alternative paths to communicate.

It’s “just” a matter of how to design the social interactions in the organization, the rituals and the spaces to enable relationships – in short: the social-interaction-structures of the system. Therefore: if the sum of the total communication is a constant in a system, then it should be a matter of how to enhance the mutual interpretation processes to achieve better decisions (and hopefully better results).

 Coming from this chain of thoughts I wanted to condense this observation into one term:


Structural Stupidity

The phenomena of Structural Stupidity can be observed in not to little organizations – and it is not the question, if we think about a huge corporation or a funky start-up. They can share the same pathological structures, which are driven by a bizarre mix of Taylorism, the undestroyable believe in Long-Term Planning, semi-feudal Leadership behaviour and a general mistrust in intellectuality (because it is believed that thinking is not making…). It costs the company and even sometimes the society an enormous amount of resources to maintain the existence, or compensate the failure of such organizations.

All Day Example: let two intelligent people work within these stupid structures, and in total they would be less intelligent and less effective in their mutual achievement to create a solution, than when they would have worked on the same problem alone.

This is insane and is the worst WOMBAT of all the WOMBATS (Waste Of Money Brain And Time). If one does not resolve the issue of Structural Stupidity, any other transformation measure will be of cosmetic nature.

One response to “Communication, Dynamic Equilibrium and Structural Stupidity of Organizations”

  1. ‘“Structural stupidity”…is the kind of systematic blindness that is the other side of structural violence. In order to get by socially, the argument goes, people are engaged in a constant work of imaginative identification with others—of “interpretive labor” as I put it. One thing that arbitrary power does is allow one to avoid this to some extent. It’s a luxury—insofar as luxury is above all, all the things you don’t have to worry about or even think about. As a result, whenever you have a social hierarchy, the people on the bottom have to constantly think about what the people above them are thinking and feeling (and hence, inevitably, end up caring about them to a certain extent) but this really doesn’t happen very much the other way around. In our society it’s probably the most flagrant in terms of gender—almost everywhere, actually, women seem to know a great deal about what men do every day, how men think, what men care about and think is important; men on the other hand not only have little idea, but are often outraged if you even suggest they should try to imagine what it might be like to see things from a woman’s point of view. But it’s like that whenever you have a hierarchy that’s ultimately backed up by force—as feminists have long pointed out, actually. Servants and employees understand their bosses much better than their bosses understand them. They have to. Much of this is standard feminist standpoint theory but I’d like to push the idea a bit further, and say, this is really a form of structural blindness of stupidity, “the laziness of power” as I sometimes call it, which is really an effect of violence. One of the unique properties of violence is that it is perhaps the only form of human action that allows for the possibility of influencing another human being without using any interpretive labor at all—you don’t need to know much about someone to know that if you shoot them, they’re going to stop doing whatever it is they’re doing and you won’t have to think about them any more. The more one party has a preponderance of power over the other, then, the less interpretive labor they have to do.’

    —David Graeber

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.