Falling by the wayside

When a time-honored institution, industry or political movement is falling the wayside, it functions as its own worst enemy. Its "stinkin thinkin" drives it to self-destruct. It's sense of the right thing to do is the opposite of whatever could promote its survival, longevity and value to a larger community.

As I've explored for the past two weeks here, opposition to educational reforms appears to me to be falling by the wayside. This downfall of legacy systems can make way for reforms to fall into place. The pattern of self-sabotage is evident in the ways issues of danger, people, logical alternatives, personal dependency, consistency of image, government involvement and challenging work are perceived. The positions taken conform to the following flawed strategies:
  • Relying on self-congratulatory feedback: Pleased with the evidence of victory, superiority, conquests and progress. Ever more convinced by the proof that others are wrong, deficient, losers or headed in the wrong direction.
  • Beholden to superficial indicators: Taking situations at face value. Limiting considerations to factual content. Sticking to the confirmed indications while dismissing the speculative, panoramic and prognostic inputs.
  • Building confidence on self-righteous indignation: Being right at all cost in order to make others wrong. Reacting to system feedback as threats. Dismissing connections between combative conduct and fallout, side effects or backlash.
  • Fixated on positional stances: Taking pride in what is already known, decided and determined. Preventing any new growing, changing or learning from occurring.
When these flawed strategies take effect, the well-defended institution appears to be its own worst enemy. It tries harder to make problems worse. It spends more on falling further behind the changing times. It makes superficial attempts to correct deep dynamics of emergent changes. It solves the wrong problems and becomes identified as part of the problem itself.


  1. Kia ora Tom!

    This syndrome seems to be more prevalent within failing organisations than not, which is why you have something to write about here - I applaud your recognition of it.

    I can't offer organisational solutions. But it strikes me that the syndrome is a feature of how people work in large groups: communities, organisations, institutions call-them-what-you-will. It happens when the group itself is already seriously flawed. The lack of ability to self-correct seems to be a feature.

    Mechanical devices that behave the way you describe tend to be unstable. Such behaviour is often brought about by what's termed positive feedback - not positive in the okay sense, but positive in that any movement away from a spot is enhanced through feedback, hence 'positive'.

    A mechanical system is stabilised through what's termed negative feedback - servo systems are commonly used for this - the centripetal governor used in engines operate similarly - mechanical timepieces have used various means to do this for centuries.

    I'm into analogies this month :-)

    Considering these mechanical analogies, I wonder if the synergy within people groups is where the possible solutions may lie to prevent this getting out of hand.

    Negative feedback is a concerted, self-governing cycle that provides the stability so that a system can then be more easily guided, by whatever means, towards a more regulated and effective pathway.

    Negative feedback is not necessarily restricted to mechanical systems either. As a biological function, it has been studied in the endocrine systems and in cardio-vascular systems in mammals.

    Call it navel gazing, call it taking stock of the situation - it is the attitude towards the group centre and where that is moving to that's important. Many countries in history have actually taken such self-regularising measures and successfully pulled away from almost certain failure.

    The opportunities to study successful people groups in this regard are around for us all to see.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  2. Greetings Ken
    Thanks for adding all these insightful dimensions to the pattern of falling by the wayside.

    Mechanisms that utilize negative feedback are called "open systems" and those that don't get labeled "closed systems". That's analogous to open and closed minds. Open minded professors, managers and leaders make personal and organizational changes when they see evidence that their beliefs, conduct or goals are not working. Closed minded colleagues cannot deal with being wrong, clueless or in need of change. Open minded executives appear to have self restraint from too much talking/ not enough listening, too much leading/ not enough following, and too much exercise of authority/ not enough delegation. It's as if they have a "centripetal governor" in their thought processes.

    In my experience, minds are closed when fear is prevalent. That suggests that the "synergy within people groups" that you suggest has slim chances of intervening in a pending failure. Fear is usually contagious, especially when higher-ups catch it first. Limbic systems are urging "fight or flight" and the left brain cognitive strategies are handing complex issues in black and white. Those that can identify the patterns that need revising are labeled whistle blowers, traitors or saboteurs. They are neither welcomed, listened to or kept in the loop. The closed minds are runaway systems that are committed to "never too much", "never back down" and "never enough" tactics. Self restraint is not on the menu (another metaphor!).

    Negative feedback also functions in habitats and ecosystems. Increases in a predator's numbers reduces the over-population of the prey species. Droughts can cut back on reproduction in excess of the carrying capacity of the location. Composting of meadow plant life changes the pH balance of the soil in favor of replacement forests instead of longevity the existing meadow. Applying these other biological analogies to institutional failure suggests their collapse is a natural response to large scale negative feedback.

    I suspect countries can pull away from the brink of collapse because they harbor much more diversity, loose coupling, and redundancy dynamics that engender large scale resiliency. A country has more places to hide, go underground, organize a coalition and run a pirate media campaign. Citizens are not on payroll, fearful of termination or obligated to toe the line.