What organizations can learn from alcoholism

Believe it or not, many organizations are like alcoholists. Let me elaborate this point, even though I’m not a chemist.

In my point of view, alcoholism is a learned behaviour disorder. I have recently pointed out that organizations have similar learned behaviour disorders. These are manifested in various rituals organizations have towards their operation. Some of these might not make any sense, but everyone is following because that’s how things have always been.

ocd What organizations can learn from alcoholism

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a behaviour disorder. OCD is manifested in a variety of forms, but it is most commonly characterized by a subject’s obsessive thoughts and related compulsions (tasks or rituals) which attempt to neutralize the obsessions. A good example is repeated washing of hands several times a day or counting things in groups of three. Repeating the rituals lets the individual calm down and feel secure. Following the rules of structures provides security and a peace of mind, while wondering to unknown waters will produce anxiety and insecurity. This is exactly the same kind of behaviour many organizations manifest in business processes that have become de facto standards not to be questioned.

I bet your organization has such obscure belief systems, too. This could be a certain way of doing something (process), that you may find as a key driver to get things done, often described as best practices. These processes are hardly questioned and they are repeated over and over again, until we loose the ability to imagine any other alternatives unless we estrange ourselves from the fact.

Alcohol as a substance causes the release of endorphines. These are particularly shaped molecules that like to bind to opioid receptors in the brain, causing them to fire and form new connections. It’s like a key that goes into a lock. As you consume alcohol, you are constantly forming new connections by opening new doors. The more you drink the more your receptors will fire. Your connections will grow stronger and the whole biochemical network becomes addicted to alcohol. You are effectively hardwiring your system to drink.

It’s the exactly same condition as organizations experience when they repeat business processes over and over again without any serious variations or changes. This means learning is not inherent in the process itself but rather a condition that occurs only if the network weakens and starts to compete with other networks. Weakening the network by inducing alternatives through learning might be a solution, that’s at least what I have figured out about the successful treatment of alcoholism. If you try to treat alcoholism by removing the substance – alcohol – you get serious side effects caused by abrupt firing of neurons. Also, you are unlikely to cure the cause, which is the binding of endorphines.

Some drugs try to counter this biochemical network with opioid blockers that are same shape as endorphines but will utilize the rest-principle of neurons: if neurons do not fire they will die out, if they fire too often they will also die out. One of such drugs is Naltrexone, a competitive antagonist for opioid receptors. By blocking the ability of certain receptors to fire, there will be no reward for alcohol consumption. After several months the network has weakened and starts to compete with other networks, effectively removing the need to drink.

An article in Fast Company entitled “Change or Die” well describes why changing people is so hard by inducing simply just shock, for example threatening with loss of life in case of taking that one more cigarette. Many theories of change management emphasize the role of shock in promoting change, while sometimes what you really need is something that removes the benefit of doing things in a certain way or bringing up more lucrative benefits of doing things differently. Rather than making organizational changes that instabilizes the business, you might as well re-structure the business processes (ways of working) and include reflection, learning and change as an inherent component in every important task.

If you compare organizations to water, ice is the OCD organizations that are unable to change their rituals, steam is chaos where you don’t want to be and fluid is where waves and new shapes will constantly form. It’s the fluidity and flow of doing where you want your organization to be.

According to John Lilly all persons who reach adulthood in the world today are programmed biocomputers. What it means is that everything influences your biochemical network and will affect the way you will be different from others. We all have diverse biochemical stabilities in our bodies, genes and DNA and will react differently to certain external inputs, be it conversations, caffeine, air, or alcohol. This metaprogramming happens all the time when you breath and act and for the very same reason every person and organization is different from another and certain networked structures that work in one setting are not necessarily providing the same results in another.

dpc What organizations can learn from alcoholism

Having interesting conversations releases dopamines. As we know, dopamines act as the biochemical reward system of our body. Releasing these chemicals will encourage us to repeat behaviors that lead to such unexpected rewards. Interestingly, that’s also the key to behavioural change and learning, not only in individuals but also in organizations. As networks of people start to explore new frontiers and learn new things in the process, this will cause self-organization on the higher-level of networks as well (teams, organizations, markets and society). It’s the small variations that might count as new benefits elsewhere in the complex system.

When a tree grows, the cells are acting based on the interaction with their neighbouring cells. Suddenly there will be branches, trunks and fruits, emergent behaviour we can’t predict from the individual cells alone.

So, what can organizations learn from alcoholism? Rituals do exist. Embracing them might lead to behavioral disorders that might not be optimal for the current situation as well as they might have in the past. Alcoholism also provides us insight that changing strong network structures through force might not be the optimal solution for change. Other options include the removal of rewards and introducing new rewards for different kind of activities.

By understanding our own complex human systems better we can start looking for small useful variations that lead to emergent behavior. Business processes that have embedded-learning capabilities have an advantage over static and defined ones. Best way to weaken existing networks and shift them towards something else are conversations that explore alternatives and study our current as-is and to-be states. Jay Cross onces said to me that the best learning technology ever invented is conversation, the second being beer. He might
have been right, at least if we fight against beer at least once.

Thanks to Richard Stanley (Bonk Business Inc. fame) and Chris Evatt for conversations around this topic, which this blog post is based on.

[::UPDATE::] from Richard, insightful follow-up:

Few chemistry facts are mislaid, but otherwise you made a good summary of how to view organizations as people. Or at least as brains, since that is what people form in a network – a bigger mind. It is not just a meeting of minds, it is a structuring of them into a neural network.

Strangely the brain has always been understood in terms of era-technology: first it was a homonculus, then a mechanical device, then a telegraph network (with the operators as the homonculus), then as a computer – until today we are beginning to understand that the brain is not technology, it is a process. Self-awareness is not located anywhere – it IS the whole process. And when that process stops at death, there is nothing which could be ‘transported’ anywhere else – to heaven, hell or anywhere else. The only processes that continue – are your DNA (if you’ve reproduced), your created artefacts and the memories other people have of you.

BTW One idea I have discussed a great deal with David Sinclair is that Self-Awareness, or rather consciousness, is the result of complexity. Totally unlike a computer, different parts of the CNS ‘terminate’ in many different areas. The Visual Projection System has at least 36 ‘terminations’, for instance. While they are indeed connected together, the terminations happen at the same time, not sequentially. We have proposed that it is this phenomenon that is consciousness.

Another of David’s heretical theories can also be applied to organizations. Most neurons have attached to them an inhibitory neuron which acts as a governor upon the main neuron, slowing it down or cutting it off (extinction) when it is firing too rapidly. The inhibitory neuron is fueled by a stuff called GABA, that has to be replenished during sleep. If it is not replenished, (say by lack of sleep) neural networks will oscillate and become chaotic. This would explain the hallucinations that long periods of wakefulness produce. It would also explain dreaming during REM sleep (when neurons are self-firing ‘chatter’ which is normally inhibited) Randomly produced electrochemical impulses can spread unchecked through networks.

If I could think what GABA was in organizations, we could solve a lot of problems icon wink What organizations can learn from alcoholism

Great stuff, I agree with brain as the process. Richard, just a guess, GABA in organizations could be the ability for radical creativity, avoiding the crowd, abandoning the norm, repurposing the past, remixing the wrong, resulting in massive ammounts of reproductive learning. Let’s go kill some dysfunctional organizational neurons. Now I need to read more on biochemistry…

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  • http://tarmo.fi/blog/ Tarmo Toikkanen

    As a psychologist I must agree to your points. Antropomorphism (thinking on non-human objects as having human-like characteristics) is of course a built-in trait in humans, so several parallels between businesses (or anything) and people are easy to make.

    Another parallel for capitalist businesses is to compare them to psychopaths (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy). I’ll just list the whole list of psychopathic traits and you think of your favourite big company that you hate:

    * 1. Superficial charm and average intelligence.
    * 2. Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking.
    * 3. Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations.
    * 4. Unreliability.
    * 5. Untruthfulness and insincerity.
    * 6. Lack of remorse or shame.
    * 7. Antisocial behavior without apparent compunction.
    * 8. Poor judgement and failure to learn from experience.
    * 9. Pathological egocentricity and incapacity to love.
    * 10. General poverty in major affective reactions.
    * 11. Specific loss of insight.
    * 12. Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations.
    * 13. Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink, and sometimes without.
    * 14. Suicide threats rarely carried out.
    * 15. Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated.
    * 16. Failure to follow any life plan.
    (list copied from wikipedia)

  • http://tarina.blogging.fi Teemu Arina

    Thanks Tarmo. There is also a very important book on the topic called The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power and a documentary called The Corporation, comparing organizations in the checklist of psychopaths.

  • ATinNM

    I think you are too optimistic regarding how organizations can change when you say:

    “Business processes that have embedded-learning capabilities have an advantage over static and defined ones. Best way to weaken existing networks and shift them towards something else are conversations that explore alternatives and study our current as-is and to-be states.”

    Autonomic business processes, or rituals, are extremely difficult to change. In most cases mid-level managers got their position, and indirectly a sense of worth to the organization, by manipulation, in some sense, of the existing rituals. These people are the ones the organization must rely on to implement change. At the most extreme, an employee questioning the rituals is playing a round of ‘Bet Your Job’. At the other is a pointless exercise of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice If …’?

    Merely having conversations about the rituals is never enough to redirect the ways businesses function. It’s like the old lightbulb joke:

    How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Only one. But the lightbulb really has to want to change.

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