The dead beetle problem: Designing strategic weaknesses into organizations

Lately I’ve been struggling with the question of how we can incorporate strategic weaknesses into organizational design. What I mean by that is not to design around them, or how to deal with them, but to consciously and purposefully design weaknesses into organizations. In effect design organizations so they will break (under certain conditions). Please join me as I explain what I’m referring to in more detail, below.
9 March 2021
Michiel van Gerven
  • Agile leadership
  • Agile transformation
Organize Agile

This article is not intended as any kind of definitive statement of facts. Rather this article is intended to help me gather my thoughts, explore the idea, invite feedback, and find those willing to explore this with me.

The trouble with strong institutions

It may help the reader to know a bit about my personal background. I read International Relations in university. One of the subjects that would sometimes come up in discussions on state and nation building (setting up a healthy system of government in for instance a fledgeling democracy) was the issue of strong institutions. Institutions that are able to resist pressure from actors such as a President. The idea of course is that this protects not just the institution, but the system (and democracy) itself. A strong independent judiciary is a clear example of such an institution.

Clearly I now work in a very different field. Sometimes, however, I find that some ideas from my education and chosen profession intersect in unexpected ways: During the most recent election day in the United States a couple of my friends were having a discussion on the US institutions of government, in particular the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). One was arguing that the institutions had not survived the Trump era, another friend argued that they had. Without going into that specific issue it did trigger some questions for me.

What if institutions are broken, but we simply can’t tell? At first sight they may still be there – clearly the FBI still exists – but are they still functioning as they should? Have they ceased to function properly long ago but are we simply unable to see it from the outside? If so, might it not have been better for some of these institutions to break completely, rather than to have them remain as a mere shell of what they once were? What are the costs associated with such a shell-like organization? What is it like to work in such an organization?

The dead beetle problem

It seems to me that such organizations closely resemble a dead beetle. Meaning it’s actually quite hard to tell whether it’s still alive without resorting to poking it. In a wider system this is a problem. We are expecting the organization (or part thereof) to perform its function in the wider ecosystem. Visually it is still there, it is holding the space, but because it is no longer performing its function the entire ecosystem may now be under threat.

A key question of course is, is this actually a problem, apart from for the individual organization? Won’t the organization simply be replaced by a new one? While that is certainly true in many cases, many organizations also simply refuse to die. They keep stumbling on despite serious internal problems. Usually, it is the employees that bear the brunt of this. They are stretched to their breaking point while trying to make up for the system’s wider failings. When they do eventually succumb or leave they are simply replaced as parts in a machine. ‘They couldn’t cut it.’ ‘This is not for everyone.’ Those that do still survive in the organization may even take a perverse sense of pride from this. Crucially, the organization does not solve the rot at its core. Consider also the business costs associated with this. Keeping an organization upright that is fundamentally unwell requires significant constant investments that could have been better spent elsewhere. Over time the costs of addressing only the symptoms often far exceed the costs of solving the root problems.

The need for built-in strategic weak points

Surely there must be a better way. A way for organizations to remain healthy, deliver value and be a great place to work. The solution, in my mind, is not to design a stronger beetle. In fact a stronger beetle would be worse. It would hold out longer, only to eventually collapse even more catastrophically. I feel the solution is the opposite. An organization that is built to not rot from the inside out, but rather one that breaks down early and, crucially, highly visibly in pre-designed failure points. An organization that is in fact designed to be weaker, designed to break.

When designing for weakness I don’t mean designing the entire system to break. That would be rather catastrophic. Instead we can design small pieces of a system to break, in order to prevent a total system failure. For a clear example of this consider a circuit breaker in your house or car. It is purposefully designed to break, to prevent something really expensive or truly crucial from breaking.

There are some important lessons here. A circuit breaker is a very small part of a system that crucially stops the entire system in its tracks when broken. Meaning understanding the cause of what broke the system and fixing it has suddenly become the number one priority for the entire system. Moreover circuit breakers fail early on in the process,and signal very clearly that they’ve done so. Finally circuit breakers are pre-designed points of failure that prevent critical systems from being destroyed.

Integrating circuit breakers into ecosystems

Organizations, however, are not machines, rather they act as highly complex ecosystems. So taking the lessons from circuit breakers, how can we apply these to organizations? How can we design parts of our organizational ecosystem to fail cheaply, early and force our organization to deal with the underlying issue immediately?

When discussing the issue with my colleague Carmen we agreed that the right solution needs to be both technological and cultural. We can engineer systems, or use information radiators such as Obeya to signal issues early but only when the organization and its people choose to act on these signals as soon as they appear, will we be able to stave off the dead beetle problem.

Organizations need to put a much higher value on solving the issues underlying even the smallest of warning signals at the earliest opportunity. Keeping the organization healthy should be the top priority of anyone in the organization at all times. Making this viable requires investing in the ability to detect signals at an early stage and in empowering people in the organization to act upon them. Fundamentally, it also requires a new kind of leadership. The best guardians of the ecosystem will be the ones with the greatest sensitivity to these signals, coupled with the will and power to act upon them.

Fighting the dead beetle problem together

Dead beetle organizations are all around us, although they can be hard to identify from the outside. (This is why Carmen insists on calling it the Schrödingers beetle paradox.) Redesigning them with critical failure points in order to help address fundamental issues is even more challenging, and always requires a tailor-made solution.

I’m curious, what forms of dead beetle problem do you see around you? And what opportunities do you see to build circuit breakers into your ecosystem?

Michiel van Gerven

Transformation Lead