Organisations are political systems

Naomi Stanford

Are organisations political systems? Yes, of course they are. Persuasion, negotiation, and coalition building are intrinsic to their operation; they are a cockpit for exit, voice and loyalty.

That’s using politics in the sense of the means by which collective choices get made rather than in the sense of the thing that politicians do. At one level that’s obvious, but at another it’s worth emphasising, because it’s all too easy to elide politics, bureaucracy and the public sector – they have much to do with each other, but they are very different.

Bureaucracy is fundamentally about being rules based. Rules are indeed constraining – that is their point – but they are also liberating (which is why estimates of the cost of bureaucracy can be more than a little tendentious). A society or polity without rules is hardly one at all and the more arbitrary and capricious the rules are, the worse the outcomes tend to be. So the question becomes whether it is useful to organisations to be rules based, or whether the associated costs of rigidity and hierarchy outweigh the benefits. That’s a pragmatic question, as is the consequential one of how best to minimise the costs and maximise the benefits of whatever level of bureucracy is appropriate for a given organisation and a given situation. That balance will be struck differently in different contexts, but it wouldn’t be surprising if public accountability and size were two relevant factors. That’s not to say that all organisations have the optimal level of bureaucracy (in a faint echo of Stafford Beer) – far from it – rather that it is not self-evident that the optimal level is zero.

All of that is prompted by this post on the politics of organisation design (the latest in a regular weekly series which is well worth following), which in turn draws heavily on a recent excoriation of organisational bureaucracy by Gary Hamel. That brings us full circle: organisations are political and assertions about their nature are intrinsically political too.

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