All the buzz this month about Clay Shirky's post: The collapse of complex business models -- got me thinking about patterns of collapse. There are many different ways to bring an end to an enterprise, society, government or civilization. Here are the eight that came to mind quickly:
- Bureaucratic stagnation: A complexity of rules & regs or policies & protocols can burden an organization with distractions from adapting to changing environments. This is how I take Joseph Tainter's argument that Shirky quotes. This also relates to the problem of sedimentation identified by actor-network theory.
- Inadequate complexity: According to the cybernetic principle of "requisite variety", an organization needs to be as complex as its environment to survive. As the populace becomes more networked, interdependent and free to be different, public and private enterprises need to match that complexity. As Harold Jarche observed, complicated models are not complex enough to be sustainable.
- Positive feedback systems: A system that is closed to negative feedback runs away with itself. It guides itself with self congratulations. It cannot steer clear of dangers because it does not see the bend in the road, dangers ahead or changes "since the map was printed". These closed systems are given to unrestrained excess as I explored in Patterns of economic collapse and The anatomy of self restraint.
- Exploitation of dependent citizens: When customers are continually exploited, they eventually rebel from, overthrow or pull the plug on the power hungry institution. They realize they've been fed artificial stimulants that offer no real value or benefit. They experience the side effects of the betrayals, poisoning or depletions that infuriates them enough to break their dependency on the "too big to fail" institutions.
- Erosion of confidence: A parade of weak leaders, bad decisions and flawed strategies will disenchant loyal followers. It will become impossible to trust, respect and follow the leadership, governance and policy changes. Cohesive conduct will disintegrate into chaos.
- Susceptibility to invasions: Enterprises who are blinded by their own success do not see troubles on the horizon. They function as their own worst enemy when an enemy shows up with any of Jared Diamond's trio: guns, germs or steel. Their long established track record with legacy practices causes them to sabotage their own disruptive innovations. To outsiders, they appear as easy prey, predictable predators or foolish rivals who can be ambushed.
- Excessive efficiency: According to panarchy theory, collapse becomes imminent when an ecology becomes too efficient. There is a loss of redundancy, novelty and diversity. The adaptation is betting on no big changes in the environment. A similar prediction is made by socio-technical systems theory that argues a core technology will collapse when the buffers cannot absorb the environmental turbulence. The protections are too simplistic to handle the unusual changes and unexpected variety.
- Cultural rigidity: When any gathering suffers from "hardening of the categories", their future is doomed. They put their faith in one right answer, one way to live and one form of respectability. They adopt a rigid, "stick in the mud" approach to strength which is ultimately shattered. The gathering breaks in two when it tries to bend or cracks when it seeks to accommodate diversity.
With so many choices of poison, it's no wonder leaders are not even considering these options. They assume "all is well" when "hell is about to break loose". And so goes recorded history ad infinitum.