Failing to meet the Challenge(r) – “Organisational decay”

For reasons we don’t particularly need to go into, failure fascinates me.  Especially that of individuals and organisations that think they are ‘all that.’ When life is less “horrible (#firstworldproblems) I want to write about the differences between the 1977 Tenerife disaster and United Airlines 232 in 1989.  But for now, this article I read while walking around the park with my backpack-

challengerSchwartz, H. 1989. Organizational disaster and organisational decay: the case of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Industrial Crisis Quarterly, 3, pp.319-334.

Organizational decay is a condition of generalized and systemic ineffectiveness. It develops when an organization shifts its activities from coping with reality to presenting a dramatization of its own ideal character. In the decadent organization, flawed decision making of the sort that leads to disaster is normal activity, not an aberration. Three aspects of the development of organizational decay are illustrated in the case of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They are (1) the institutionalization of the fiction, (2) personnel changes in parallel with the institutionalization of the fiction, and (3) the narcissistic loss of reality among management.

This is a corker of an article. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and saw the launch of Columbia on television in 1981. I was briefly obsessed with manned space flight, and remember the explosion of the Challenger, in 1986, vividly.  “Free to be Human“, a mid 90s book, had a very good section on how the engineers had pleaded with management not to launch...

Schwartz takes a psychoanalytic approach, detailing how people want/need to believe that the organisations that they pledge fealty to are perfect, omnipotent.  But nothing lasts forever you know, the rot sets in. Schwartz pins it on NASA in the 70s for not being honest (with itself) about the impact the Nixon budget cuts would have on its grand ambition, and its following failure

The most of the opprobrium gets heaped on Reagan appointees. LBJ had been happy with a Republican in charge of NASA, because he was the best person for the job.  Reagan appointed hacks to senior posts (for both patronage reasons but also to take control/smash organisations he didn’t like – see what he tried to do to the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency).

Once the komissars come on board, the honest ones, the ones who are willing to speak truth to power, realise the gig is up, and either polish their CVs and head for the door or take early retirement if they can.  And if they can’t do those, they either stay and become pod people or seethe.  Exit, voice, neglect, loyalty indeed. And then shit blows up, and people die.  Or civilisations fail to grok the slow burning threats.  Like us, over the last 30 years.  Oh look, here come the consequences.

Some quotes.

I have argued elsewhere that, for the committed organizational participant, the idea of the organization represents an ego ideal – a symbol of the person one ought to become such that, if one were to become that person, one would again be the center of a loving world as one experienced oneself as a child (Schwartz, 1987a,b,c). The ego ideal represents a return to narcissism (Freud, 1914, 1921; Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985). It represents an end to the anxiety that entered our lives when we experienced ourselves as separate from our apparently all-powerful mothers.
With regard to organizations, this means that individuals redefine themselves as part of an organization, conceived as perfect: an organization in which members are perfectly integrated into a collectivity which is perfectly adapted to its environment. An image of an organization serving as an ego ideal may be called an “organization ideal” (Schwartz, 1987a,b,c).
(Schwartz, 1989:323)


The commitment to a bad decision
If the organization were the organization ideal, it would never make a bad decision. Since no organization is or can be the organization ideal, this means that they all make bad decisions sooner or later. The institutionalization of the fiction of the organization ideal begins when the organization, trying to justify its bad decision, becomes committed to it (see Staw, 1980). In the case of NASA, the original bad decision was the decision to build the shuttle on the cheap….
(Schwartz, 1989:324)


Advancement of incompetent individuals on the basis of ideology
To the extent that the core organizational process becomes the dramatization of the organization as ideal, the evaluation of individuals for promotion and even for continued inclusion must be made on the basis of how much they contribute to this dramatization. This means that, increasingly, promotion criteria shift from competence to ideological purity. This means that those individuals who are retained and promoted will be those who will know very well how things are supposed to be, according to the dominant ideology, but who will know less and less about reality insofar as it conflicts with, or simply is independent of, ideology.
(Schwartz, 1989:327)

So, this isn’t the Peter Principle, with a kind of passive selection pressure, but lamentable Lamarckian lunacy…

Schwartz quotes a book that has sat on my shelves for 20 years, semi-read, called Trento, J. 1987. Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle. Crown, New York.  The whole thing below is a quote from Schwartz, 1989: 328.  The Trento stuff is in quotes marks. The last quote is the the kicker. [See also “Censoring Science” for what the Dubya Bush White House did to NASA, and specifically to climate scientist James Hansen.]

In the light of the idealization of business in Reagan’s administration, consider what the following passage suggests about the reasons behind Beggs’ choice:
“[Former NASA Comptroller] Lilly described Beggs as a “nonentity” in his earlier stint at NASA. After all, to Lilly, Beggs was first and foremost a contractor. Unlike old NASA hands, Beggs believed that the contractor and government were a partnership and not even occasionally adversaries. Such a relationship was the ideal bom out of a free-enterprise system and representative democracy.” (p. 184)
“Although he worked for Reagan’s election, he was not one of the new, ultraconservative Reaganite true believers. As a lifelong Republican businessman, Beggs did not realize that the conservatives’ agenda was not subject to the kind of compromise that he was used to. If you were not one of them, you were against them. If Jim Beggs was an obstacle, he would be removed.”
( p. 184 )
“For all his experience in the corporate and political world, Jim Beggs was not prepared for the Reagan White House. He did not understand that appearance meant more than substance. That outward adherence to doctrinaire conservative philosophy meant more than the quality of the work. “p. 253)

Right, better get back to the thing I’ve been avoiding. For now, this last quotesfrom Schwartz (pp.330)

Discouragement and alienation of competent individuals
Another result of this sort of selection must be that realistic and competent persons who are committed to their work must lose the belief that the organization’s real purpose is productive work and come to the conclusion that its real purpose is self-idealization. They then are likely to see their work as being alien to the purposes of the organization. Some will withdraw from the organization psychologically. Others will buy into the nonsense around them, cynically or through self-deception (Goffman, 1959), and abandon their concern with reality. Still others will conclude that the only way to save their self-esteem is to leave the organization. Arguably, it is these last individuals who, because of their commitment to productive work and their firm grasp of reality, are the most productive members of the organization.

[Oddly, one of Ayn Rand’s enormous books has a strand of this running throughout – the one that culminates with the train accident. But that’s another post…]

There’s a section called “The narcissistic loss of reality among management” which many of us will nod ruefully at. And Schwartz concludes –

Organizational decay is the result of a denial of reality and a concomitant addiction to fantasy. The reality that is denied is the reality of the individual’s separation, limitation and mortality. It seems inevitable that the solution to the problem of organizational decay must involve the acceptance of this reality.
Within this context, the idea of a solution to organizational decay does not look like a specific program that powerful executives can impose on, and through, a powerful, potentially limitless organization. Rather, it comes to look like a group of limited men and women, trying hard each day to reclaim, within the terrible constraints that each one faces, a little bit of the hold on reality that they, themselves, threw away.
(Schwartz, 1989:332-3)

We are smart enough to exploit fossilised sunlight.  We are smart enough to create global production networks and value chains, wrought of container ships, fibre optic cables and the sacrifice of humans and animals.

We are not smart enough to figure out how to even acknowledge – let alone  deal with –  the slow (in human scale – eyeblink quick in geological or even human civilisation) consequences.

So it goes.


See also: Normal Accidents, High Reliability Organisations, social movement learning


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