Brittle Organisations

This weak I was asked a powerful couple of questions:

  • What defines an organisation that is beginning the descent into entropy and collapse?
  • What signals can we spot early of this process?

After some reflection, my answer was that a brittle organisation is one that has begun to turn inwards. When it no longer has external stimulus & engagement, it is exposed to the process of entropy.

Here’s a process by which organisations become brittle:

  1. Loss of curiosity: Once an organisation loses its sense of curiosity, it diminishes the value of external signals in favour of internal conversations. Curiosity may decline because of success, pressures of work or other cultural factors but the impact is always the same. Signals of the need to learn and adapt are being sent but the organisation starts to pay less attention and ask fewer questions.
  2. Excuses: Once curiosity drops, the organisation tends to begin a process of explaining away signals and issues of underperformance. Accountability to external stakeholders erodes as the organisation becomes increasingly wedded to its rationales and excuses.  An employee or stakeholder seeking to hold others to account or to make change now needs to work through layers of excuses.
  3. Cognitive Dissonance: If the signals from the outside are weak and the excuses are strong, an organisation can arrive at a place of cognitive dissonance.  Employees have to choose between what they might see or hear outside the organisation and what is believed internally. The pressure to conform is strong and many people will choose to rationalise the internal beliefs.
  4. Learned Helplessness: Argue with employees enough about changes or lessons that they see in their work and they will learn that change is not possible. Learned helplessness takes over where employees may individually know that a change is required but they assume nothing can be done.
  5. Lack of Trust and Agency: When employees behave as if change can’t be made, organisations commonly take away the power to make change. Performance focus becomes stricter and more oriented to compliance because trust is collapsing and accountabilities are breaking down. This creates a focus on internal accountabilities over external delivery. Collaboration and innovation break down. As employees move away from responding to their circumstances and more tightly follow policy and process,  the organisation loses its last exposure to external stimulus.

This process is not irreversible or inevitable. It can be stopped any way down the chain by refocusing the discussion in the organisation in three ways:

  • Turn outward
  • Discuss externally focused accountabilities
  • Restore agency and trust


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