The Case for Tinkering
Institutions are prone to fixes that have accumulated over time to create the organizations that we know today. The British political system, for instance, may be seen as the sum of a series of both small and large institutional amendments that go as far back as the Magna Carta. This is in a way what Edmund Burke argued following the French Revolution.
Burke is often described as one of the founders of modern conservatism. However, unlike petty conservatives who favor tradition because of a personal fondness for old values, Burke made a particularly interesting point, which is that the radical “destruction and rebuilding” of entire systems from scratch is risky because the new system will not benefit from the accumulated wisdom of the old one.
This is a very important insight. The fact that we do not know why some institution exists does not mean that it has no reason for being there. This is a very dangerous inference, yet it is frequently made, both in government and business.
Imagine the following: a group of consultants is hired by a newspaper to revamp its content. They step into the newspaper’s offices and realize that editors and journalists are all working in isolated offices and cubicles. They determine that the newspaper’s employees would benefit from working in an open-space environment as this would give a boost to collaboration and creative content. The changes are implemented.
The newspaper’s managers then notice something odd. Although some staff seem to be doing better than before, most employees are negatively affected by the changes. The reason lies in something that the consultants oversaw. While open offices may work quite well in marketing and advertising firms, journalists and columnists need an environment in which they can concentrate on their individual articles.
What we can conclude from this is that we should not underestimate the wisdom imbedded in existing institutions. In this sense, and in this sense only, conservatives got it right. The more big and radical the change, the greater the risk of overseeing certain aspects of the big picture.
Such risks may sometimes be justified, particularly in periods of crisis, where organizations may need to be overhauled in order to survive and prosper.
The rationalistic mistake, however, is to believe that planned, top-down, radical systemic change can solve any problem. In many cases it simply will not, either because the system is too complex to understand, or because the people at the top act on the basis of limited rationality, or both. This is why gradual tinkering or experimentation may sometimes be a much better way of dealing with organizational problems.
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