The Courage to Think of the Orchard

The Great Transition/7 The autoimmune disease of organisations can be cured

by Luigino Bruni

published in  pdf Avvenire (62 KB) on 15/02/2015

Creatività 02 ridKnow well, then, that the god orders this. And I suppose that until now no greater good has arisen for you in the city than my service to the god.” (30a; English translation: Thomas G. West)

Plato, Apology of Socrates

Many companies and organizations are created in order to seize a market opportunity, to respond to a need, to provide a service. Others, however, are the emanation of personality, passions, ideals of one or more persons, who put and embody the most solemn words and the largest projects of their lives in their organization.

The earth is full of these "other" type of organizations and communities and many of the finer and higher things of life take place within these organizations and communities, where people's motivations become projects, the projects make history, a history embellished with many colours and flavours. These entities, if they want to last beyond the life of the founder, have a vital need for creative and innovative members. But once these organizations and communities start growing and developing, those who generated them eventually create governance structures that prevent the emergence of new creativity, and so they give life to their own decline. This is a fundamental law of motion of history: the first creativity that generates organizations and communities at some point starts producing inside the antibodies to protect itself against new creativity and innovations that would be essential for them to survive longer. It is a severe autoimmune disease affecting many organizations and communities.

Its root lies in the mismanagement of the fear of losing the originality and the specific identity of the founder's "charisma". For fear of dilution, contamination or degradation the original purity of the mission of the organization-community, people with greater creativity are discouraged because they are perceived as a threat to the identity. And so instead of emulating the founder in their creativity the forms in which it was realized and manifested are imitated. The immutable core of the original inspiration is confused with the historical organizational form that it took in the early stages of foundation, and it is not clear that the salvation of the original inspiration in changing the forms in order to remain faithful to the essence of the original nucleus. And so everything ends up trying to become immutable, to remain unchanged and to wither.

There are many symptoms of this disease. The most visible one is the emergence of a general inability of attracting new generative and valuable people. The most profound one is the famine of eros, of passion and desire, which manifests itself in a collective organizational sloth. If the desires and passions of the new members are oriented towards the historical forms in which the founder has embodied their desires and passions, you end up wanting the fruits of the tree, not the tree that generated them. Those who govern an organization and want it to survive over time should say to their creative and young people: "Do not desire the fruits generated yesterday that are fascinating you today. Be a new tree."

The only real chance for a tree that has borne fruit (a VDO, that is, a value-driven organization) to continue to live and bear fruit is to become an orchard, a wood, a forest. Exposing itself to the wind, and accommodating bees among its branches that may spread its seeds and its pollen in the soil, generating new life. Saint Francis is still alive after centuries because his charisma was generative of hundreds and thousands of new Franciscan communities, all equal and all different, all of Francis' and all expressions of the genius of the many reformers who, through their creativity, have made that first tree become a fruitful forest.

There are no guarantees that the creativity of the new arrivals will bring the same fruits as that of the founder, and that anyone who tastes them recognizes the same taste of the first fruits, or find them even better - "you will do things bigger than me." Certainty, however, is death, unless you have the courage to face this vital risk. A VDO can die because of infertility, but it can also die because of becoming something that has nothing of the VDO and the ideals of the founder - as is happening, for example, in far too many works of religious orders taken over by companies whose sole purpose is profit or income, and have no relationship whatsoever with the first charismatic DNA. In every field, there exists a road to be able to continue the dream of the founders in faithful creativity, but it is in that mestizo territory of venture, trust, wisdom of governance, an alchemy always unpredictable in its results.

The culture and the choices of governance have a specific responsibility in these crucial stages, and most certainly in that of the transition from the founding generation to the next, but also when the time calls for profound and brave changes. At the origin of the autoimmune disease there is almost always the fault of the leaders using the most innovative members only for executive and functional tasks, not allowing them to flourish and develop their talents. Indeed, it is here where the heart of the disease (and its cure) is. In the early days of the foundation, the days of pure creativity that may last for decades, the VDO-s attract excellent people, bearers of talents and "charisma" in synergy with that of the founder. The governing wisdom of the founder and / or his first employees lies in ensuring that creative people can develop themselves in their diversity, in not turning them into maids in the only service of the charisma of the leader. If, in fact, diversity is notCreatività 01 313 appreciated and all the best talents are oriented towards a monistic culture aimed completely at the development of the organization, the VDO ends up losing its biodiversity and fertility, and starts to decline.

Preventing and then treating this form of autoimmune disease is particularly difficult, because it is a pathological development of a process that was initially virtuous and indispensable for the birth, growth and success of the organization.

In the first phase of life of the founder, in fact, many VDO-s experience what is perhaps the highest form of creativity that the human realm knows (the only one that can approach it is that of the artists, which, by the way, is very similar). It is the season of pure, absolute, explosive and disruptive creativity. In order for this great creativity to be embodied in an institution, there is an essential need of people who realize, disseminate, consolidate and implement that creative energy, to channel the water of a new spring. All members are required some creativity, but we could call that of the second level. It is the creativity expressed in the search of forms, modes, means of implementation and embodying of the initial and original creativity in new geographic areas, in new and unprecedented economic sectors and areas. But the first and in many cases only virtue requested of the members of the VDO during this first phase is the absolute and unconditional fidelity to the original inspiration, and all creativity and life force is subject to loyalty and put to its service as a subsidiary. Without this game of absolute loyalty and subsidiary creativity many spiritual movements would not be born, nor the many communities that have made the world more beautiful and continue to improve it every day; just as many associations and social enterprises generated and grown from the daimon of the "prophets" of our time would not have appeared and grown.

Therefore, during this first phase, the creativity of the best members is directed by the governance of the organization towards their functions and for a "faithful" accountability. At the same time, as time passes more and more new members are attracted whose preferences are called "conformist" by the economic literature calls. These persons derive happiness from aligning themselves with the dominant tastes, values and the culture in the group, because these are the values required and necessary at this stage of development. But when the founder or the founding generation leaves, these organizations and communities find themselves with members educated only to loyalty and creativity of the second level, while the organization in this new stage would need creativity of the first level, the same as the nature of the founder and the one that had attracted them - no creative person is attracted to conformist imitators. This is how they fall into 'poverty traps' that feed on themselves. On the one hand, in fact, for the members of the organization it would be essential to have that generative and free creativity (of the first level) that had long been discouraged and therefore they now do not have it. On the other hand, those "negative virtues" that were fundamental in the first phase of the organization now create a culture that isn't really vivid or dynamic enough to attract new creative people who would actually be rather essential to hope for a new spring. This is the main reason why the historical arc of the great majority of idealistic organizations follows the parable of their founders, and the generational change marks in fact the beginning of decline.

However, decline is not their only option, because the organizational autoimmune disease can be prevented, or at least taken care of, even though the only real medicine is to become aware of it when the process is still just starting Our history and the present tell us that sometimes the movements flourish after the death of the founder, communities are raised up by a generational shift and the tree does not die but multiplies in the orchard.

Organizations, like all true life, can live more seasons if they die and rise again many times. However, to learn how to be resurrected, one must first learn how to die. Those who want to save their life will lose it. It is the law of life, and also that of the organizations that are born from our greatest ideals.

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