Organisation design: death discussions

In 2014 Tikker watches came to Kickstarter.  I bought one.   It was ‘designed to provide you with a constant reminder that life is truly short and we should take advantage of the time we have on this planet.   The Tikker System will give you an estimate of your life expectancy and then counts down every second so you can make choices that will enhance your life …  Buy one now and you will see how it immediately and positively affects you and those around you.    Start a new way of looking at life today!’  

I got it because I was doing a ToDo Institute Naikan programme, and there was some emphasis on how to live the 30,000 days of an average lifespan.  I wanted to know how many days I had left and stay alert to how I was spending the days and how I would like to have spent them or imagined myself spending the rest of them.  

Three years later, not because I’d lost interest in this but because it has become an ingrained and habitual way of thinking about my life, I put it on Freecycle and someone who had a countdown to launching his new business came for it. 

In fact, I got more interested in death and ways to approach it and last year trained to be a non-religious funeral celebrant.  But I am finding I am less interested in the one-off tribute at a funeral aspect and more interested in the social processes, systems, routines, rituals, planning and preparations for the ending of life.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, looking for some Humans Systems Dynamics Institute  (HSDI) resources for something completely unrelated to death or end of life, I saw a page on their website on Patterns with Death.  This resulted in two conversations – the first with Glenda Eoyang (HSDI)  and the second with Glenda and Liz Coenen about death – the rituals of it, the differing social attitudes towards it, the ripples that it precipitates, and the types of support people seek (or not) as they come into closer contact with death. (Note: there is an HSDI Facebook group on Patterns with Death)

These conversations have brought to mind a conversation I had sometime last year with Milan Guenther on the concept of hospices for enterprises.  We felt that there was too little recognition that organisations have a life cycle – they get stuck in the notion of phases of growth – per the classic Larry Greiner model. We wanted to see models of organisational lifecycle through decline to final ending become as commonplace as the growth model. Further we were interested in how these ending stages could be designed and managed well. (See the book: Organizational Pathology: Life and Death of Organizations)

Now, again wondering about this, I came across a special edition Culture and Organisation (2014, Volume 1, Issue 1) on exactly that topic.  Emma Bell introduced the articles in the journal saying, ‘Death is an integral part of organizational life, not only in talk and symbolism but also in a very real physical sense.  Despite numerous examples which illustrate the importance of organizational death as a meaning-making construct, scholars of organization have only rarely treated death as an explicit focus of study.’

Bell notes that, ‘The term ‘organizational death’ encompasses a wide range of individual and collective level phenomena. We were initially concerned with the metaphorical use of the term, either by researchers or by organization members, to account for the cessation of organizational function, for example, in situations of corporate closure or shutdowns of production units. Issues of organizational mortality, discontinuity and decline are particularly prescient in the wake of the global financial crisis; industrial and economic downturn, corporate failure, downsizing and plant closure have material, social and psychological effects on societies, organizations, groups and individuals. Organizational death can thus constitute a profound source of loss and suffering through the removal of fundamental structures of work-related meaning.’

As a note of caution, Tony Walter, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, in his paper Organizations and death – a view from death studies, which is in the special issue – says that speaking or thinking ‘of the ending of an organisation, or part of it, as organisational ‘death’, possibly followed by some kind of resurrection or reanimation ..  is a conceptually more problematic metaphorical use of the word ‘death’; and like all metaphors, may be useful for certain purposes if used appropriately, but misleading if taken too far.’

As well as the metaphorical death, Walters discusses four other forms of death in his paper:

  • Most obviously, individual members of organisations die and suffer personal bereavements; a member of the organisation or someone close to a member dies – with consequences not only for several individuals but also for the organisation or part thereof.
  • Organisations may cause, or at least contribute to, people’s deaths, for example through medical intervention, poor communication, harmful products, incompetent service, industrial accident, or suicide.
  • The food industry relies on the rearing of animals for slaughter and the subsequent processing of their remains
  • There is the question of whether, and if so how, awareness and/or denial of our mortal human condition affects the way people behave in organisations and what they expect from organisations.

Regardless of the form of death, talking about it of and in organisations often causes discomfort.  For example, the UK organisation Cruse Bereavement Care,  notes that, ‘For many employers, it can be difficult to know how to respond when an employee is bereaved, and how to ensure that the impact on both the individual and the organisation is minimised. With one in ten people in the UK likely to be affected by bereavement at any one time, employers can benefit from planning ahead.’

This ‘planning ahead’ is part and parcel of designing ways of working with and talking about death. Done well, it could support the purpose driven approach to organisation design that many advocate.  Emma Bell, again in her comments on the articles in the special issue of Organization and Culture, mentioned earlier, makes the point,  ‘It is only by coming to terms with the inescapable nature of death as a universal parameter and a constituent part of life that we can discard mechanistic, reductionist theories in favour of a more meaningful working life … all these writers show that death goes to the heart of what it is to experience life in organizations; we therefore cannot understand the meaning of organization without acknowledging death.

Knowing that individuals only have around thirty thousand days of life, and many organisations espouse notions of making work meaningful – should organisation designers introduce and work with concepts of death?  Let me know.

Endnote:  A London School of Economics blog, February 2021, estimates that 15.1% of UK businesses, registered and unregistered, are ‘at risk’ of permanent closure in 2021.  That is a lot of people affected by organisational ‘death’. 

Image:  Dying Matters