Designing organizational death

On Monday I was in a one-day workshop where the theme for the day was "A Good Life" and the purpose of the day was 'to collectively immerse ourselves into high-level questions that guide our work and thinking: How can design and architecture help shape "a good life"? What is our perspective on the future of performance? The future of health and wellbeing? The future of community? The future of learning?'

This was a difficult day and theme for me because over the previous few days I'd been involved in the sadness and distress following the fact that 'Alice … committed suicide on the 26th Sept 2013. She had been exhausted by the housing and harassment issues she faced over a period of years and the poor/negative response from the authorities. These circumstances are to be considered at an inquest to be held in the near future.

She was an amazingly beautiful, wise and strong woman who despite her very difficult personal circumstances over recent years, gave all her energy to caring for others around her and all those who face injustice in the world. Alice was especially a proud feminist and her work in this area will be continued by all those she inspired, laughed with and loved.' The costs for Alice's most basic funeral were raised by donation.

Nothing had prepared her community for the shock of Alice's death. She had plainly and obviously lived her life supporting and enabling others in working towards 'a good life'; not an easy task in her environment. Questions remain on whether she herself had 'a good life' and why she chose to take it. But the issues of harassment in her workplace which may have been contributory will be explored at the inquest. Workplace difficulties can lead to individual suicide.

So when I joined the workshop I was wondering about organizations and their contribution or not to an individual's death. Without exposing the detail of how we got there, one of the strands that emerged during the morning was the question 'is it possible to prepare for (or design) a good death?' A group of us attempted to get to grips with this question – looking specifically at organizational death.

One of the debating points was the general impression that organizational death is not commonly talked about, researched, or prepared for. All the talk is about 'sustainability', 'growth', and 'resilience'. Walter Kiechel wrote provocative blog piece, The Myth of Corporate Persistence, giving some reasons why we should not be drawn into thinking organizations are immortal and in our workshop we wondered why we could all accept human mortality but there appears scant realism around organizational mortality.

This seems odd given the speed at which organizations are falling and dying (think Nokia and BlackBerry). Fresh in my mind was a bit I'd noted in The Economist that tells us that 'Back in 1958, companies in the S & P 500 had typically stayed in the index for 61 years; today the average is just 18 years. Nokia produced a quarter of the world's handsets in 2000. This week it decided to focus on making telecoms equipment and sold its handset business to Microsoft, which is also a shadow of its former self.'

So after the workshop I did a quick scan for literature on organizational mortality and death. What little there is appears clustered in the 1980s. However, Dr Emma Bell, Keele University, recently (2012) called for papers on the topic for a special issue of Culture and Organization. She says that 'While sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists and psychologists have long studied death, including its cultural effects, representations, societal functions and meanings, organizational death and loss has not been widely explored and theorizing remains limited.' The issue will be published in January 2014.

With co-author (Scott Taylor), Dr Bell has written a paper Beyond letting go and moving on: New perspectives on organizational death, loss and grief which explores the difficulties of applying the commonly accepted 'stage model' of individual grief associated with death and loss (often described as the Kubler-Ross model) to an organizational situation for example, plant closure, downsizing or merger. Instead, they offer a 'continuing bonds' perspective 'which has the potential to strengthen the field through treating organizational death as a cultural phenomenon that is fundamental to the construction of work-related meaning. ' For those dealing with the prospect of organizational death in some shape it is an article well worth reading.

For those not immediately thinking about organizational death it is probably time that they did so. It is incredibly common. Lars Hasanen's (2010) in his doctoral dissertation 'Organizational Death and Employee Motivation' gives some figures:

'Organizational deaths currently affect millions of employees each year. In their statistical findings for 2005, Marks and Vansteenkiste (2008) found that 544,800 businesses had closed within just that one year in the US (Corporation for Enterprise Development, 2007). They concluded that this finding is consistent with Harris and Sutton's (1986) research, which showed a trend of nearly half of all enterprises going under within five years of their inception, and that 90% do so within 20 years. Government organizations in the US are no exception to this, as they have also been found to perish at a similar rate. There are similar trends in Europe as well. Every year 1.5 million people are displaced due to business failures (Creditreform Economic Research Unit, 2009). In a comparison of the enterprise deaths occurring in the US and those in 12 European countries (for which data is available), 9% of all enterprises in these regions were found to have perished in 2004 (Schror, 2008).

An article Preparing for organizational death: Proactive HR engagement in an organizational transition advises readers to 'Be constantly ready for organizational death. Be realistic about the potential for being acquired, divested, or closed, and make preparedness an ongoing agenda item for both the HR function and senior management. ' With this advice in mind it makes sense to prepare for a good death i.e. one that is seen as part of an inevitable natural cycle and allows for 'The ritual practices that surround death, including mourning and memorialization [that] provide a symbolic focus through which historical connections, including collective memories and shared histories, are constructed and maintained.'

I know of two organizations that look as if they are preparing for their death The Gates Foundation is one (thanks to Daniel for sending me this article link). In this Atlantic Philanthropies is mentioned. It 'will complete active grantmaking by 2016 and distribute our entire endowment and close our doors by 2020.'

Do you know of any other organizations preparing for a good death? If so, let me know.

Meanwhile I invite you to join me in extending supportive thoughts to Alice's community as its members struggle to make meaning of her death.