Are you reifying your organization properly?
07 Wednesday May 2008
I hope my title caught your eye and made you panic a little – ooooooh, there is something I should be doing . . .!
Well, I hope to persuade you to do it less. Or, to run a mile from any organization where you hear it a lot.
Reify : To regard or treat an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence
It really bothers me when we talk of an organization as if it has an existence beyond the people who are in it.
It is true sometimes the organization has a legal persona. We will eventually talk about the Democratic Party nominee, for example. But that is simply a decision that members of the Democratic Party will make following a procedure they devised and adopted.
Real thinking, breathing, living people who are quite entitled to change those procedures as and when they deem it fit. Indeed, they have anticipated doing so and have already laid down procedures on how to initiate change – as do all good organizations.
The rules that we lay down do not live and breathe without us. Every organization has rules that are still written down and have been ignored for years. Every organization also has rules that are extremely powerful and are not written down anywhere.
What the rules tell us, written or unwritten, are the relationships we have with each other.
This is why I think it is dangerous to reify an organization: this is why it is dangerous to present an organization as a mind beyond the minds of the people in it.
Compare the minutes of a meeting which say “it was decided” to “Mary proposed” “Peter seconded” and the votes was carried “10-5″ with no abstentions. Compare these minutes with minutes which include the voting record of each person.
When we say “it was decided”, we are deliberately concealing who said what and who decided. Why are we concealing that information?
Because we don’t want to write down how we made the decision. Whatever we did that day would not, we believe, reflect well on us.
Most likely, we have made a decision we are not entitled to make. Most likely we have usurped authority that is not ours.
Can we get away with saying “it was decided”?
Yes. Often. Rensis Likert has written on this problem.
1. We may not talk about a problem.
2. We may not talk about not talking about a problem.
This is a mark of a festering trouble-spot in an organization. When the double-bind is widespread, the organization is likely to run into deep trouble.
I remember a colleague who used to send out memos headed “from the desk of . .”. Mmmm, she received a lot of replies addressed “To the desk”.
Survival guide to contemporary corporate life
1. Be wary of the passive voice. Ask ‘who dunnit?’
2. Be double wary when inanimate objects and abstract concepts are used to resume the active voice. Ask ‘who substituted a thing or an idea for a person’ , and then, ‘what have they done that they don’t want me to know’!
3. And if you can, cut your losses. As Clay Shirky said, a four year old knows that any activity not designed for her participation is not worth sitting still for.
Don’t allow people to obscure who gains from an action and who has been cheated. If you cannot restore a better atmosphere, then look for a better place to be. It is important to be in a place which is honest in its essence. Where people intend to do well by each other even if they get it wrong sometimes. Look for that essential honor and head there.