Are institutions really problematic?

Institutions get perceived by most frames of reference as problematic. The only exceptions are those who have climbed to the top of their hierarchies, hold power over most of the underlings and benefit from the perpetuation of their positions in an institution. For the rest of us, institutions wreak havoc and do harm. Here's some of the familiar ways we denigrate institutions which inadvertently play into their persistence:
  1. If we're concerned with personal freedoms to dissent and vote democratically, institutions appear as autocratic regimes that violate human rights without hesitation.
  2. If we appreciate the cooperative interactions in open networks, institutions appear to be groups with toxic norms, politicized obligations and protected boundaries.
  3. if we're passionate about life long learning and workplace literacy, institutions give off the impression of arrested development and widespread incompetence.
  4. If we favor disruptive innovations, institutions contaminate multiple business models with inefficient cross subsidies that do a disservice to the customers
  5. If we're promoting value creation in a 21st century economy, institutions show up on our radar as a zombie economy devoted to value destruction.
  6. If we see the good in so called "piracy, hackers and remixes", institutions are protection rackets for legalistic property rights and the criminalization of creativity.
  7. If we're excited about the possibilities of crowdsourcing, institutions show up as antiquated business models for the push delivery of authoritarian expertise
  8. If we're contributing to the long tail of culture creatives, institutions dictate consumer taste by the mass production of mediocre, derivative drivel.
  9. If we value emotional intelligence and feeling-based decision making, institutions appear hyper-rational, disorienting and oppressive.
  10. If we care about equal rights, pay and opportunities, institutions function as "systems of domination which practice patriarchal premises to promote injustices".
  11. If we value the advances of quantum physics, institutions embody a Newtonian rip in the living fabric of our recursive interconnectedness.
  12. If we're fascinated by living systems, complexity and emergent outcomes, institutions appear rigid, simplistic, mechanistic and controlling.

When we see institutions any of these ways, we are making ourselves right about the wrongs we see. We're convinced the opposite perception cannot be true (where we could be wrong about how right institutions are). We've justified in our own minds how institutions are really problematic, offensive and unacceptable. There's no way we are looking at a "false positive", a misleading indicator, planted evidence or a biased diagnosis. It appears to us we are being objective about the impacts of institutions. We rely on our confidence about being factual and detached from the subject of our observations. As far as we can tell, we are not being self righteous when we're right about this. It makes no sense that we are describing ourselves through our objections, projecting our unresolved issues onto institutions or being what we're seeing in a mirror. There's no way to reference ourselves in our description of institutions that could add any significance or dimension to the description.

That last paragraph was written to feel reassuring. It invites you into a disengaged tribal feeling of collusion and commiseration. It supports your thinking in dichotomous terms (either/or) about institutions. It conveniently dismisses the alternative considerations that could result in an emergent transformation. The last paragraph keeps situations and reactions the same, just like institutions do for themselves. We also keep institutions the same by the ways we perceive, describe, evaluate and think about changing institutions. We inadvertently play into the perpetuation of "problematic institutions" by the ways we value, favor, contribute, care, get fascinated, and show concern.

to be continued in the next post: Amazing Institutions ...


  1. Fantastic. Thanks for opening uo this line of reasoning amongst the tribe of well-intentioned progressives (with whom I belong). Can't wait to see some more reflections here...

  2. Thanks for the comment "well intentioned progressive"!

  3. I feel the same way about arts organizations, even when they are too small to be called "institutions". I believe after many years in arts and non-profit administration that there is a flaw in the model of governance by volunteer boards. I applaud the spirit of these volunteers and the wonderful contribution of individual board members. Sometimes a magically effective team comes together and moves mountains. However, too much of the time people from many different walks of life come together and make poorly informed decisions that represent the lowest-common denominator of their group-think. Dysfunctional Boards are commonplace and many good boards become dysfunctional for periods of time as they deal with leadership transitions or the challenge of disruptive members or issues. And there is effectively no public oversight of non-profit boards.

  4. I've seen that same pattern you describe so insightfully, Linda. Perhaps boards could "self-manage" these dysfunctional patterns if they had maps to see where they've ended up and how to get out of those detours.

    It seems like a logical next step after all these wonderful online and desktop tools for self-expression to distribute free tools for self-diagnosis and self-remediation.

    Thanks for the comment!