The Paradox of Self-Preservation

One of the things that has frustrated me about organizations I have worked for is their deep commitment to self-preservation.

That might sound surprising. What’s wrong with seeking financial success, stability, and job security? The problem comes when these goals become the unspoken basis for decision-making. Actions or ideas that could pose a risk to self-preservation are rarely, if ever, taken. And as a result, organizations can only serve their purpose and their customers in a suboptimal way because it must fit within the confines of the self-preservation agenda.

This is true even in many of the most mission-driven companies you can think of. For example, a company where I used to work had a great web page where they pointed out that most companies have an unwritten primary goal to make money (i.e. “the bottom line”). In contrast, this company felt that making high-quality software was truly the top priority, and making money was demoted to priority #2 — “so that we can continue to make high-quality software.” What I found is that while the team was truly dedicated to writing high-quality software — even at the expense of profitability when necessary — there remained an unwritten, even higher priority of keeping the business going. This was based on a scarcity assumption, that having to work anywhere else would necessarily be worse. The resulting commitment to self-preservation created a surprisingly risk-averse and slow-moving culture which I believe is significantly limiting the impact that their high-quality software could have in the world.

Here’s one simple clue that your organization is being guided by self-preservation: Do you have competitors? As Frederic Laloux points out in Reinventing Organizations, “when an organization truly lives for its purpose, there is no competition. Anybody that can help to achieve the purpose on a wider scale or more quickly is a friend, an ally, not a competitor.” If some other company finds a way to serve your customers faster, better, cheaper — great! This is a breakthrough for the purpose, even if it also means that your organization may no longer be relevant. Organizations should not outlive their useful lifetimes. There are always creative solutions for moving forward.

When organizations set out to preserve themselves, they waste untold energy fighting against the fundamental reality that “the only constant is change.” As a result, there is less energy available for serving customers and pursuing the mission; daring ideas are abandoned, the organization crusts over… and it is much more likely to go out of business. This is the Paradox of Self-Preservation: the harder you try to preserve an organization, the less likely you are to succeed (at least in the long term). Instead, the less you care about self-preservation, the more you can focus on serving the mission, creating value, adapting, changing, and innovating — efforts which, in turn, tend to cause organizations to thrive.

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