Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Appetite of Institutions

Seth Godin writes:  "The question each of us has to answer about the institution we care about is: Does this place exist to maintain and perpetuate the status quo, or am I here to do the work that the radical founder had in mind when we started?"

Institutions, encumbered by the necessities of operational organization and stability, usually reward those individuals who perpetuate the institution. These individuals believe in what they do, they are good at running things, and they keep people engaged; but they may not actually be good at solving the problem the institutions were created to address... especially because to do so might negate the need for the institution.

Institutions become very good at narratives around helping individuals and solving problems, but of organizational necessity reward behaviors that elevate or promote the institution, not true solutions. Do we really believe food companies have our health as their main concern, and not profitability? (In some ways, the question seems silly: they are corporations, of course profits are their primary focus.) Do we believe that the banking industry has the financial independence of their customers as their primary concern? Does the pharmaceutical industry really want us to be able to stop taking their highly-profitable prescription drugs?

Whistleblowers in these industries don't get promoted, they lose their jobs. Stories of institutions covering up their problems or shortcomings are legion.

Each of these industries (aggregated institutions) are good at telling us how they help us, but at some deeper level we know to be suspicious of those messages. And it's important that we are suspicious, that we recognize the temptations and tendencies of institutions to become narcissistic and self-serving, and that we push back so that we can balance the scaling benefits of institutional organizing with the reality of how true change is usually individual and personal.

Some of this institutional behavior could be classified as malicious, and the most egregious examples surely are. Much of it is more mundane, and just relates to the tendency we have to protect ourselves from change, and often just to manage the overwhelming work those inside are trying to get done each day.

I met with an organization that helps communities in low-income areas become self-developing. I really like the work that they do. They were trying to determine a checklist for when a community could be certified by them a "self-developing." The checklist was long, and the discussion with the different area directors was even longer and obviously tortured. Tensions built as small disagreements in wording seemed to disguise deeper issues and division.

At lunch, I asked several of the area directors what the core driver for a community becoming self-developing was. They were all in agreement: it's almost always when someone from a community's leadership goes to visit another, high-functioning, community and catches the vision. So, of course, I said, so what you really need to become is an exchange program?

I could see the looks on their faces. Yes, but... if they actually took that idea seriously, they would have to question all of the many people and projects and funding which now define and run the organization. It would be too easy to say that my question really got to the core of their situation, but if it in fact had, you can see how hard it would be to really change. Instead, some other person might start a much smaller effort to actually create these community exchanges, and it doesn't take much of an effort to actually see a competition arise between the original organization and the new initiative. Less so in a non-profit setting, but unquestionably when money and livelihood are involved.

We need to recognize the appetite of institutions, and question them when they don't really serve us the ways that they say they do. In education, we need to ask ourselves why institutions that we say exist to help all students become better learners, end up leaving so many students feeling that they are not smart or capable. It's not wrong to question our institutions--in fact, it's the only way to make sure they stay healthy and are truly responsible in the ways they claim to be.

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