Evolving Toward the Abyss: How We Blunder into Inauthentic Purpose

I’ve discussed why well-intentioned systems begin to embrace a financially/politically driven purpose rather than the value-driven purpose of The Mission. I think it is helpful to understand how such an embrace creeps up on a system and changes every aspect of its evolution.

In an earlier post, I gave a short overview of the kinds of changes that take place in the first few years after support and advocacy systems are formed. Below is a more nuanced and much expanded version of the long term:

Phase One:

  • Initially, Board, managers and staff are recruited from a community that already has a purpose related to The Mission.
  • Keeping the door open seems tedious and unrewarding, and is often thought to be unconnected to The Mission, or even destructive of it (irony abounds in this evolutionary process).
  • Financial disaster, Board and Staff turnover, small time embezzlement, and other results of not having adequate financial controls produce relentless anxiety in managers and board, who are, after all, legally/politically responsible.
  • They shift their priorities to financial or political incentives that seem to offer more stability.
  • The system settles into a pattern where most time and resources at the managerial and board level is focused on money and marketing.

Phase Two:

  • The focus on money and marketing often produces real growth in available resources of all kinds. Salaries increase, reputation in the larger community (whatever that community might be) becomes noticeably improved, the ability to recruit Board members with enough standing that they can help with keeping the doors open, and operational improvements in managing funding, become part of the ongoing evolution  of the system.
  • New staff join the organization because of a combination of commitment to the Mission and the perks of effective financial/political sophistication. These twin motivations shift to favor perks over time.
  • Managers shift their priorities to accommodate the stability and comfort  of effective financial/political sophistication, and The Mission gradually becomes more abstract in managerial/governance work (losing its depth, becoming a meme).
  • Managerial initiatives become targeted to “efficiency” using the ridiculous assumption that you can do the same thing for less money if you just punish people enough. This results in everyone gaming the constraints (eventually including those who came up with the indicators that are now being gamed). In effect, the constraints no longer focus on the Mission, but on various indicators of control (control/power is not Mission-Critical except for managers who no longer think much about The Mission), wealth, and reputation (again, not Mission-critical).
  • People who are part of the system begin to appropriate its resources for themselves because there are more resources and the efforts to produce efficiency result in the actual Mission-Critical Tasks having less and less meaning or connection with the indicators. They become viewed as part of the exploitable system.
  • This cannibalization of The Mission begins to produce more and more behavior that is either clearly exploitation or of such poor quality that the people whose lives depend on The Mission increasingly call out the system.
  • The system responds, not with changes in  its operations, but more sophisticated marketing.
  • The overall result of Phase Two is to make the system more and more brittle (i.e., unable to robustly change in response to crisis). The system response to crisis instead becomes various methods of avoidance, like public relations and lawyers.

Phase Three:

  • At some point, as the twin forces of increasing resources and dwindling connection between resource use and The Mission become generally obvious, the system will begin to attract Board Members, Managers, and Staff who are willing to use the functional versions of the Dark Triad model to enhance their control and rewards without having to pay any attention to The Mission, if they think they can get away with it. This includes the possibilities of direct exploitation of those who are supposed to benefit from The Mission, as in sexual or financial predation.
  • It is at this point that I view the system as a zombie. The system has become a gangster syndicate even if no violence is involved, and the vast majority of people in the system aren’t participants in Dark Triad behavior. The zombie system is much harder to break down than the Mission-Critical one ever was. For example, look at city corruption and ask yourself if the kickback amounts go down when the city has a financial decline.
  • Any stress that effectively threatens the rewards or power that benefit system members will cause its collapse. After all, if you remove money, reputation, and power, there will be nothing left of the system, its Mission having faded into oblivion a long time ago.

These phases are not some script or program. Rather, they are a scaffold to help you grasp why good missions eventually disappear. The reality is that any human organized system (start-up, corporation, public agency, non-profit, soviet style bureaucracy, western public bureaucracy) that values money, reputation, and/or power will follow the contours of this evolution, though the details will change, and the kind of functional Dark Triad tactics that are successful will differ. This does not mean that we can’t do anything to preserve The Mission. It means that we can’t count on system evolution to protect that Mission. (Later, I’ll post on mission-supportive actions.)

See the Wikipedia article on Zugzwang for more insight into the drivers of this kind of malignant evolution.

Next: An Example about Dark Triad Corruption of the Authenticity of The Mission