Organisations are political systems

Participants on the last couple of organisation design programmes I’ve facilitated have asked questions about managing the politics of design work, specifically the various types of power plays inherent in it.

I touch on this in my book, saying: ‘Organizations are political systems and the political arena can be murky. …  Navigating the organizational politics and the political dynamics often means that OD practitioners face compromises, tensions or ethical dilemmas that force them to ask themselves whose interests they are being asked to serve, and managing the consequences of their answers.’

In a blog I wrote,  ‘Do organisation designers need political skills?‘ I note that ‘in order to navigate the political arenas … practitioners need finely honed political skill, defined as the ability to effectively understand others at work, and to use such knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal and/or organizational objectives.  Politically skilled people ‘combine social astuteness with the capacity to adjust their behaviour to different and changing situational demands in a manner that appears to be sincere, inspires support and trust, and effectively influences and controls the responses of others’ (Ferris et al. 2007).’

I wonder now if organisation designers do pay enough attention to organisational politics and honing their skills to work with/handle the politics.  As I’ve been pondering the participants’ questions and wondering how to respond in a way that is helpful to them (and me), I remembered Gareth Morgan’s metaphor and discussion on Organizations as systems of political activity.

He makes the point that ‘politics occurs on an ongoing basis, often in a way that is invisible to all but those directly involved’.   He describes politics as the way people handle ‘relations between interests, conflicts and power’.

Most of the participants on my organisation design programmes work in large bureaucratic, hierarchical private and public sector organisations.  From Morgan, we learn that ‘when we talk about organisations as bureaucracies … we are characterizing the organization in a particular style of political rule.’  Bureaucracy being ‘rule exercised through use of the written word, which provides the basis for a rational-legal type of authority or ‘rule of law’.

As I was mulling over the ideologies and politics of bureaucracies an update came my way leading me to Gary Hamel’s talk on Busting Bureaucracy at the 2018 Drucker Forum.  He quotes a survey finding: ‘76% of respondents said political behaviors highly influence who gets ahead?’ (For more on this see What we learned about bureaucracy from 7000 HBR readers).  He tells us ‘bureausclerosis – an excess of bureaucracy—too many layers and too many pointless rules—robs OECD economies of $9 trillion per year in lost economic output. The indirect costs of bu­reau­cracy—friction conformity, insularity, rigidity, apathy, politicking are likely to be even higher.’

Hamel has long been advocating against bureaucracies – still the dominant form organization structure/org chart.   In a 2014 HBR article, Bureaucracy Must Die, he says ‘It is the unchallenged tenets of bureaucracy that disable our organizations—that make them inertial, incremental and uninspiring.  To find a cure, we will have to reinvent the architecture and ideology’.

On architecture he argues: ‘A formal [bureaucratic] hierarchy overweights experience and underweights new thinking, and in doing so perpetuates the past. It misallocates power, since promotions often go to the most politically astute rather than to the most prescient or productive.

On ideology he asks ‘So what’s the ideology of bureaucrats?’ And he answers ‘Controlism. Open any thesaurus and you’ll find that the primary synonym for the word “manage,” when used as verb, is “control.” “To manage” is “to control.’

He then makes the point that to find a cure ‘To find a cure, [for the problems associated with bureaucracies] we will have to reinvent the architecture and ideology of modern management — two topics that aren’t often discussed in boardrooms or business schools.’

I think he’s right on this.  I’ve rarely participated in or brokered an organisation design discussion that openly asks what political ideology we are designing our organisation’s architecture to/with, how we feel about the way we design power in the organisaton, or what alternatives to both we could consider.

If we do not challenge/discuss the dominant organisational ideologies and architecture are we simply colluding with those in organisational power positions?   Is organisation design inherently a political activity? Sharon Varney in a blog Organisation Design without Drama implies it is saying ‘One of the problems surrounding organisation design is a reluctance to call it what it is. Sure, there are lots of sensitivities around organisation design work. But reaching for politically acceptable euphemisms doesn’t help.’

The report she co-authored The Palace: Perpectives on Organisation Design suggests that a stakeholder analysis should identify the political structures in the organisation and how the exercise of power might stymie a re-design’ and discusses (section 8.1) the bureaucracy/adhocracy swing, quoting from Margaret Wheatley ‘In our desire to control our organizations, we have  detached ourselves from the forces that create order in the universe. All these years we have confused control with order. So what if we reframed the search?’

If bureaucracies are about the politics of power and control, should we go along with the ideas that we should be ‘busting them’?  How would we start a conversation on this with the very people in/with power who seek either to control or to maintain control, and who, for the most part, are the ones who commission organisation designs and redesigns?

As Hamel asks ‘When a Global 500 chief like A.G. Lafley, twice CEO at Procter and Gamble, says, “The CEO can see opportunities others can’t,” who’s going to say “rubbish?” Or when the former managing partner of a prestigious consulting firm declares that it’s up to a handful of top executives to “shape the destiny of the business … while others have their heads buried in operations…,” who’s going to say, “no, you have it backwards; it’s the people on the edge who are best posi­tioned to see the future coming?”’

As he says ‘Unless we are willing to be .. honest and forthright, we’re part of the problem, not the solu­tion.  But before challenging others, we need to challenge ourselves. In what ways are we still paying allegiance to the bureaucratic confederacy?’

As we design and re-design organisations whose ideologies and architectures are we in thrall to and how can we challenge it and ourselves on this? Do we need to develop better political skills?    Let me know.

Image: Bio-inspired political systems


2 thoughts on “Organisations are political systems”

  1. An organization can never be flat enough! Too many are more concerned about their own wealth and welfare, forgetting that these are only achieved through the very success of the company itself.
    It’s a sad day when playing politics becomes the norm of a company culture. Hire the right people and do well by and for them.

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