The Force in organisational life and becoming a Jedi — part 2: the Dark Side

Originally published on Medium: Aug 5 · 8 min read

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Image of Yoda action figure with a lightsaber

‘The Force’ in organisational life is the unseen energy that can shape and control you and your organisation — often towards the Dark Side — or you can learn to use that power to shape things positively.

In this piece, elements 5–8:

5. How natural human responses systems create system fragility…

6. …and patterns of resentment and separation which destroy partnership.

7. Structural coupling between the organisation and environment, and

8. Control, framing, paradigms, politics, self-knowledge, and lust for power!

I use 13 elements in much of my core work — for the first four, see here:

  1. ‘The purpose of the system is what it does’ — look at what it reliably and consistently produces.
  2. Hidden, essential organisational logic — from the Viable Systems Model, the underlying functional and structural laws of organisation.
  3. The inevitability of the shaping of culture by leaders and systems.
  4. ‘Worlds’ matter — you can never see ‘the whole elephant’ because each different perspective is a different world.

How dominant/other cultural patterns create system fragility…

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slogan: ‘an image of dominance — an Imperial Tank in the hold city of Jedha’. The underlying image is the same thing, from the Star Wars film Rogue One

Naturally and instantly, like a reflex, human groups connect — and part of their connection is to see themselves as different from some other group. As soon as the concept of Otherness is introduced — and one group has superior access to resources, rule-setting, and opportunity — the dynamic sets in.

The Dominants see the Others as not quite right. The Others feel themselves to be off-base, slightly insecure in this world shaped by the Dominants. And we get a locked-in, stable (but destructive) cycle of each side preserving and protecting what they consider to be ‘special’ about their group, and even allowing and adapting to the (slightly ‘wrong’) attributes of the other. This stability feeds the Dark Side of each group — and undermines the capability of the Whole they are both a part of to cope, adapt, survive in a complex and challenging world.

How do you see this Dominant/Other cycle playing out? In your life? In society? In your organisation?

Human responses in organisation tend to produce patterns of separation and resentment which destroy partnership.

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Image of Darth Vader reaching out in Return of the Jedi — caption ‘Darth Vader reaches out’

It’s natural, instant. And it builds more… more separation, more resentment. Less and less partnership.

As we begin to work in partnership, with good intentions,
something turns up. One party takes on the burden, the other is grateful. As
the burdened party takes on more burden, power, responsibility… the other is
alienated, ‘done to’, disempowered. Or, increasingly entitled and demanding.

Worse — we put a third person in the picture, their job: to meet the needs the empowered and disempowered have of each other — to be in the middle.

These dynamics are real — but we don’t see our instinctive, reflex response making it worse.

The Force is at work, the easy path to Burdened Tops,
Oppressed Bottoms, Stretched and Torn Middles, and Righteously Screwed Customers.

The Jedi resists this pull, creates the independence of mind to act not reflexively, but in service of the system.

Do you recognise some of these patterns in your organisation? Uneven distribution of burden, responsibility?

What would it mean to act in service of the system?

Are you trapped in a tractor beam of The Force?

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A horse’s rear end with the caption ‘is the Force in organisational life making a horse’s a&%£$ out of you?

Structural coupling is the natural, incremental process by which organisations become better and better fit to their environment — and their environment becomes more and more fit to them.

Gregory Bateson makes the point that flat grasslands and large herds of hooved animals evolved together, not separately. So if you want a nice lawn, you need a lawnmower to mimic the teeth . And a roller which does the job of the hooves. And finally you need a sack of manure ‘because you have to be at least the other half of the horse too’.

My public service consultancy becomes specialised. We learn to bid, employ people to search for and write tenders — and eventually we need expensive security accreditation to do the government work.

This is all good — if you like the way your lockstep with the environment is leading you. Most organisations make incremental, logical changes to fit with their market, suppliers, partners. As Hoverstadt and Loh say in Patterns of Strategy, this is why 90% of strategies are not implemented.

The organisational Jedi sees The Force at work, and works out how to divert it for better results.

Can you see the structural couplings you are in?

Do you like where they’re heading?

Organisational Jedi Knights have to confront themselves with love

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Picture of aged Luke Skywalker from the Rise of Skywalker, with the caption ‘ultimately, luke is still fighting himself’

This is the true Dark Side of The Force in organisational life, which Professor John Raven, in the Freudian tradition, calls the Thanatosian or death urge.

There are two major drives behind this — the drive to impose our models on the world, and the drive to divide the world into holy and profane, better and worse. In both cases, the end-point of the urge to control is the urge to death — to kill and to kill ourselves.

Our natural tendency is to hold on to our understanding of the world, our model which allows us to act and understand what happens. When the world threatens to break down this understanding, the pathological response is to refuse to accept the verdict of the world around us (ultimately, as Ed Straw say, the deity which is the ecosphere) — and, instead, force the world to act in a way which matches our needs. Shoshana Zuboff tells the powerful story of how the excess data involved in interacting, act, and expressing opinions on the web used to be discarded, variables needed in the transaction, like so much exhaust from an industrial process. Then someone worked out that it was incredibly useful for prediction — and could be used to make money. It’s one short and problematic step to turn from that to using the same models to control our behaviour — since control is, ultimately, the surest form of prediction. So like the fungus which takes over the behaviour of the ant, short-circuiting its brain, like the State (in James Scott’s Seeing Like A State) which declares ‘we’ll have no more messy ecosystem in the forests — just predictable, rational, countable trees’ — we destroy that which we seek to control.

This manifests in every aspect of organisational life — the metrics which destroy what they measure, because they have become a mechanism for reward or punishment (Goodhart’s Law), or simply because they have had to destroy the complexity of the world to make sense to the centre (Scott’s Law). And therefore the desire of the ‘centre’ to control the whole, to become the self-serving Top (what Beer calls pathological autopoesis), is a natural, inherent human urge.

Marx, after Saint-Simon, said that we put what is most special of ourselves into work, it then becomes distinct from us in the world, and we feel ourselves alienated form it. Nietzsche said that we take what of ourselves we believe is holy, we put it on a pedestal and worship it, and thereby denigrate ourselves by comparison. The fundamental Thanatosian urge underlying colonialism is, as Keekok Lee says, is to make a distinction and call one part ‘better’ and superior to the other. This lust to power drives organisational politics, the destabilising of the system to benefit certain parties, and drives a fundamental way of seeing the world which makes it natural that a few benefit while the others toil. It hurts us all by denying the complexity of people and our common humanity.

The tools of The Force here are the ways that we see the world, and the ways that we make others see the world — context cues, tiny triggers of behaviour, shape behaviours — the steps at the court entrance, which make us enter gazing up in subservience, the Courtly Rituals to see the doctor or the boss for an annual review. And the affordances the environment offers us — the things we can make use of for our own purposes in life. The Dark Side of The Force is manifesting when we are forced into paradigms and framing and understanding of the world in ways that are dictated by, and ultimately benefit, others.

The Jedi lights up these worldviews, and shows simply that another way of understanding is possible. Inexperienced Jedis think they are fighting the evil empire, but the old and wizened know that the much more important battle is with the lust for power within themselves — the desire to force the world to see things the way they see them.

Self-knowledge — radical self-inquiry, as the folks at Reboot say — is the Jedi’s antidote to the lust for power. It’s only when we confront the dark side in ourselves, that we can avoid our attempts at crusading for The Good becoming ultimately destructive. In doing so, we will quickly learn that the world isn’t black and white, a lone hero combating evil, like Luke destroying the Death Star. Instead, the world is grey, complex, a necessary yin-yang balance of complexity. Gandalf started as Grey then eventually became White. It should have been the other way around. Fundamentally, there is a healthy and an unhealthy urge to death, and a healthy and unhealthy urge to life.

What have your Jedi powers shown you about organisations, or yourself? About the lust to power and control?

Next time, parts 9–13:

9. Hierarchy and levels of work, human development, and capability

10. Human needs and the impact of trauma, shame, and referred pain

11. The reality of irreducible complexity

12. It’s enabling or disabling constraints all the way down

13. And the need — and potential — for testing and learning in reality!

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