“Organizational Rigidity” as a natural limit of growth

From a Pharaoh hardening his heart to confused children refusing to budge… complexly organized systems pushed to their limits often display emergent rigidity.

Things that develop their organization by new parts being added  to existing ones, develop accumulative designs that become harder to change over time.   It leads to organizational rigidity, that can either be seen as inhibiting change or enabling structure.   These are aspects of the systems physics of self-organization.

Accumulative designs become harder to change over time

Crystallization works by replicating a pattern from a starting pattern, that remains the origin of the pattern throughout the process, like the process that creates snow flakes of a single design.   It’s similar with road systems, that as you add connecting roads it becomes both unnecessary to add more and harder to change the established network.

Even with advanced computers the world financial system gets built around trusted expectations, leaving a rigid imprint of past thinking in our models for the future. If it becomes unmanageable and overwhelmed by floods of new kinds of information the models don’t contain, the system is not designed to make any response.

At the limits of Lucy’s organizational abilities, confusion reigned

Organizational rigidity is natural, and develops in any system built by accumulation.   A bureaucracy may be built to be very efficient and resourceful, for example, in responding to the original scale and kinds of demands.  It’s initial designs may have been highly versatile for the variety of problems it started with.  It naturally becomes mired in inefficiency at some natural point of piling on ever increasing demands of new kinds.

You could say that is “the scientific explanation” for the famous inefficiency of government: not possible to design for managing an ever more rapidly growing and complex world.   We keep multiplying the new kinds of tasks government is asked to do, and it’s design for doing the tasks of the past keeps failing.

In general, any kind of system that is built by a series of additions to its original design, faces breaking points at the organizational limits of each scale.   That’s very visible in the waves of “creative destruction” that increasingly characterize economic growth.  It also limits economic growth, needing to build only on it’s own foundations.   That becomes its downfall if the old design was not flexible enough to adapt.

Kodak was unable to make use of its own invention of digital photography, for example. The networks and ideas of the new industry were so different from the old ones, it couldn’t prosper as an extension of the old one.

These are examples of developing “functional mismatch of variety” similar in meaning to  “information mismatch in variety” described by Ashby’s “Law of Requisite Variety” for communication systems.  There may be valid statistical equations for communicating information.    For the nature of organization in complex systems, though, there may be no meaningful equations, due to the mismatch in functional design between equations and complex systems.


These were the kinds of insights that in 1979 prompted me to write about the very real danger of pushing our economy to a “Growth induced collapse“, pushing it past its natural organizational limits.   Taking the demands of growth toward exceeding the organizational limits of people and institutions is part of the “The Unhidden pattern of events” we see today much more clearly than then.

I’ve yet to write effectively on the subject thought, and should try now that a few extra pieces of the puzzle are falling into place.  I’ve being overwhelmed by needing to invent a new science to substantiate it, and searching for how to explain the complementary opposite process, the part of “The Unhidden pattern of events” that answers the riddle.  The riddle is, “How do things that begin by growth *so often* not end in chaos, but with find endurance and perfection in their designs instead.    There’s a very real answer, that the mental rigidities of our growth culture, keeps hidden from view.

The way growth systems of many kinds change from a course of multiplying their own complications to reducing conflict in seeking perfections, is also naturally hazardous.  It’s one of those profound kinds of changes where very small differences make a huge difference.

The danger of attempting it and reward of success are often closely intertwined.   You see that in how “birth” ends growth and begins maturation and commonly a very parlous moment.   Maturation is the path to security and perfection, but to get on that path requires cutting the umbilical chord and being thrown into an exceedingly complicated new environment.   Nature does it so often in so many ways, you have to admit the method does seem to work, though.

– Google finds interesting papers on organizational rigidity


Recent good blog comments.

On John Baez’s Azimuth

Frits Smeets: 1 February, 2012 at 10:29 am On Azimuth, discussing “What’s up with solar power

Frits suggests the social rigidity of economic power structures, termed “geopolitical entanglement” as a barrier to a solar transition….

There’s this thing I can’t get out of my mind. The real problem with solar energy isn’t technological, I’m confident engineers can & will take care of that. Nor is it a matter of finance, although I agree with P.F. Henshaw’s point about reform of the financial system, i.e. allocation of investment funds on the basis of real cost calculation.

The problem is that solar energy is the ultimate threat to (geo)political entanglement of interests. Let’s face it: since the breakdown of the Berlin Wall international politics is not about territory, it is not about ideology, it is mainly about securing fossil energy supplies. Solar energy is the sword that threatens to cut the knot. Again, I don’t doubt that engineers and financial project-managers can take of their bussiness – if we let them.

AZ response 1: Henshaw 2 February, 2012 at 1:22 am

Frits, It’s very true that changing ideological systems takes more than having a practical reason to do so.

It’s not just the “vested interests”, it’s all the kinds of systemic integration of systems to work as a whole, making them more resistant to change than the popular “single value theories” might suggest. John Sterman of MIT has looked at the great effort it takes to build models that will expose those “hidden infrastructures” of systems that develop by growth. My work is often about discovering the hidden barriers to change, and understanding why they seem so easy to grow and unexpectedly hard to change.

Tonight’s news was about the storm damage to overhead power lines. It seems to never pay to put them underground if they started above, so much other stuff has to be moved. It’s the same for technologies, that become uniquely integrated as they grow, as people fit in new things to complement what was already there. The starting points of growth (as a process of accumulative design) generally need to be part of any future. You see that in diverse examples to how evolution never loses its origin to how the roads around Boston are generally just expansions of old cow paths and wagon trails.

For solar one of the problems is fueling, that where electric cars get recharged won’t correspond to where people get other kinds of services for their cars. The distribution of gas stations was based on getting full service at a quick stop. Electric recharge will be for only one service, leaving the car for a long time… and so incompatible with the geometry of car service habits without a other kinds of change too.

Ideological rigidity of that kind develops too. How professional and social languages generally adapt to fit their environment produces history dependence. Local language often becomes integrated with social roles and “frozen in place” as a “silo” of thinking, and a mental fixation for the social networks involved. How “sustainability” developed as a social movement around increasing resource supply rather than reducing demand, extends supplies by accelerating actual depletion, is a kind of trap that frozen thinking in a changing world produces.

I’d love to know it there’s an actual literature on the subject. The problem is also discussed as “systems inertia” or as “scar tissue”, neither of which gets at the real source of the natural resistance to change for things that are already built. It’s that changing things that are already built means reorganizing them too. I discovered that as a pivotal insight as I started my work in the 70′s, and that it conflicted in a big way with growing the economy by changing resources and technologies ever faster as a way to solve resource depletion by substituting new ones all the time.

So, I agree with you, that various kinds of “geo-political entanglement” will create stubborn resistance to converting to solar. Organizational rigidity is also a natural property of all things that develop by growth. I first noticed it affecting my work on passive solar in the 70’s, which has been economical in many ways all along but mostly never adopted. To make good use of passive solar you need to adopt a “solar ideology” of a sort, and become attuned to the variations in weather as a way to live. “That’s just not how people think”, is what I ran into.

AZ Response 2 Frits Smeets: 2 February, 2012 at 10:10 am

P.F. we’re talking about natural resistance to change things that are already built. For one thing, we must not forget that we got were we are through our policies – and policy is the only way out. There’s no way around it. So try this as an execise. Changing from fossile to solar implies the relocation of the bigoilwar taxdollar, for starters. Which means transforming the military-industrial complex into something else. For obvious reasons that’s not going to happen unless people get lured into it. And the only way is ‘show, not tell.’ Now imagine a mayor or senator who wants to start a pilot project and asks your advice for the trip. I don’t know what your advice would be but you’d better take account of five epistemological rules of thumb:
– goal-oriented design is rigid, means-oriented design is plastic.
– energy demand (question) is quantitative, supply (answer) is qualitative.
– quantity is a product of measurement, numbers is counting.
– you never know what rule operates to explain any open series of numbers. New facts change rules.
– maximisation of the value of any variable equals shortcuts equals loss of flexibility.

I guess any mayor or senator gutfeels that the risk of rigid design is its sudden death. What he probably doesn’t know is that the risk of flexible design is its possibility of new pathology. There’s no easy way out of fossile energy and no easy way into the sun, yet it has to be done and since we’re consciously trying we’d better be prepared for mistakes during the process. The way to be right is to accept the possibilty to be wrong. That’s as far as my imagination gets and why I end up with the above rules of thumb.

  • AZ Response 3 Henshaw : 2 February, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    OK, One also might apply your own principles to the starting definition of the problem as “solar transition”, and find perhaps that it’s actually a rigid goal-directed idea, and not sufficiently plastic to fit the real world of complex circumstances it needs to grow in. If the rigidity of the idea is part of why it’s hard to apply, the barriers it’s confronting in the rigid social structures of the old system also seem impossible to change too. So… it might help… to back off a bit and think about the big picture of where rigidity in design generally comes from.

    I think it’s generally from extending a flexible design to its natural point of inflexibility. Developmental change is inherently about adding successive changes to “things that are already built”. For example, once you start a building as a single family home, it’s hard to convert it to becoming a multiple dwelling, even if the market changed and you’d like to. That’s what organizational rigidity is, a limit to what you can do with the foundations first built.

    So “solar transition” may have begun with the very versatile idea of “love the earth”, but then was developed to fit a BAU growth model. It also seems an idea of simply swapping solar for existing energy systems like bubbles on a flow chart, but actually to have become a rigid strategy before finding a means of application. The existing economy wasn’t built on that energy source foundation, though. Maybe that’s why it just doesn’t quite fit.

    Growth as a natural process is the accumulative design of an emerging new way to use energy. It invariably starts without great applications, but slowly finding applications for its unproven seed of new organization. When successful it then becomes an explosion of applications of what then seems like a quite reliable “great old idea”, but that also distracts us from the tentative ideas it really came from, and what the successful strategy’s real natural limits are. The first principle is that “accumulative design extends a fundamental design”. Then the natural limits of rigidity for the fundamental design are what emerge when development stops finding new things it can do, and can only be expanded by improving efficiency. I think it’s important to consider that general case when considering any particular case.

    So, the “mayor or senator gutfeels” they are facing a wicked problem. They’re feeling tempted to either throw their up their hands in frustration or do something drastic and dangerous…. That circumstance is often accompanied by finding, if they look around, the one kind of rigidity they’re focusing on is part of a whole network of other rigidities. So removing the one, even if possible, would not foster change or alter the larger system’s natural organizational limits. It would just waste money, energy and social capital on efforts that would be ineffective, dangerous or truly self-defeating.

    Nature’s ways of solving that kind of extreme re-design dilemma don’t include getting rid of one thing to replace it with another. Systems don’t have “interchangeable parts” like a bubble diagram does or a machine. That’s like a tempting “bridge to nowhere” approach, a lot of people DO seem to think of as their only choice, though. To avoid the high hazard of that kind of poor choice, to try a “death and regrowth” strategy, redesign would need to proceed by atrophy of one thing as some more versatile and satisfying thing takes root, using the profits of the thing being allowed to atrophy as a “cash cow” of sorts.

    That approach avoids treating “what to do” as a political choice, turning it into an investment allocation choice to stop investing dead end strategies. It then lets the investment markets find something better to do. With great regularity “problem solvers” have done the opposite, though, struggling to find new ways to invest in keeping pushing the old systems toward their point of maximum efficiency, and rigidity.

    Perhaps a smooth transition to solar, or something else arising organically, might have occurred already if our rigid thinking had allowed it to. For many decades now, we’ve been investing in increasing our rigid dependence on faster resource depletion to fulfill our rigid commitment to maximizing profit growth for those with the most profits, and things like that. We should have let the economy coast, to look for new ways to put down roots, allocated the investment resource for looking around for better things to do.


On Daniel Lemire’s blog

Daniel Lemire Why aren’t we getting richer? The scarring tissue theory

He raises the problem as: “However, we now have too much organizational scarring tissue”

…. concluding

Thus,  scientific progress may be stalling. But scientific progress merely makes innovation easier. New science might enable new inventions, but without adoption, it is worthless. During the cold war, the Russian scientists were a match for American scientists, but the USSR could barely copy American innovations. And today, again, bureaucrats are winning. Worstall gives several insightful examples:

–          Why is it nearly impossible for individuals to purchase small equity in new ventures through sites like Kickstarter?

–          Why is online banking so convoluted? In Africa, they are using mobile phones to pay each other, across countries. There is much room for innovation but it is stalled by regulations.

Today, I could probably install solar panels on my house and generate my own power, but my electricity provider makes it extremely difficult. Last time I was in hospital, it was full of red tape, and they are still talking about implementing an electronic health record (in 2011!). Classrooms today look just like they did in 1950, except that we (sometimes) have a desktop computer in the back of the class. I am still not allowed to use a Segway where I live, let alone more innovative transportation solutions.

My take: After WWII, everything had to be constructed. Entire countries had literally to be rebuilt. The baby boomers were, to some extend, starting from scratch. They could create new government agencies, build new roads… new industries… This is still happening in China, and has happened recently in Germany because of the reunification. However, we now have too much organizational scarring tissue. So why do we see so much innovation online? The computer industry, and more recently, the web, have much less scarring tissue compared to the mining, transportation or health industries. In effect, the web remains a frontier… and this is where the wealth is being generated. Soon enough, governments will successfully tame the web. But for now, we can enjoy Facebook freely…

So, how do we renew with prosperity? I believe we need some form of reboot. We need a major disruption. We don’t need to keep General Motors alive, we need to reinvent transportation. We don’t need to save Wall Street, we need to reinvent banking.

DL Response 1: Henshaw — 10/10/2011 @ 19:56

There are lots of good analogies between biological systems and economic systems. Both are actually organisms built around natural ecologies, though you might not want to tell the humans who would be embarrassed by that sort of thing.

To understand societies as organisms you need to give particular attention to their stage of development. Sure Europe after the war had fewer constraints. Everyone was eager to help too. It also had a crop of very smart macro/micro economists who did a fantastic job of matching the working parts of things. Today’s economists don’t seem to actually know how anything works and just play with wild theories and equations that don’t. There is major “scar tissue” binding them to ideas that were true for a while but stopped being true ~50 years ago, is one problem.

The stage of development of modern economies in that they were built for ever more rapid expansion on ever cheaper energy and other resources. That’s what the historical record around which we built our modern society and academic institutions told us. Now that promoting growth as a limitless solution for all has completely backfired what we are most lacking is any other vision. The vast majority of the general population think planting some vegies and saving plastic bags will transform a global finance system that needs doubling real returns from the earth every 15-20 years, endlessly into the future. It’s not going to work, and there seems to be no place to hide.

DL Response 2: Henshaw — 17/1/2012 @ 18:50

Looking at this again made me realize my comment (#3 above) should have addressed what “scarring tissue theory” seems to correspond to in the natural stages of development observable in common ecological, business and biological systems.

There is something that regularly corresponds to “scarring tissue” as described above, that does indeed prevent further growth. It is the physical organization of the system that grew, left behind as the product of the growth process. Growth in nature is invariably a process of building an energy using system.

Growth is a construction process that self-organizes as it builds on itself over time. That leaves itself in place as “scarring tissue” that is both quite hard to abandon once its organization is complete and leaves little option for further growth too. Construction projects of all kinds reach that sort of natural end, the infrastructure that growth built.

In the gestation of organisms that “scarring tissue” and end of growth is the organism, though. It’s not dysfunctional left over fiber at all, as suggested by “scarring tissue”. It does indeed exhaust the need for growth as the initial multiplication of parts is followed by their integration and refinement, then education, in making it ready for something else.

What happens in nature is a “succession” of projects, with one project coming to completion as a preparation for its roles in **the next project**. So, the end of growth does naturally make further growth kind of useless. It ends growth so the organism can go on with **having its life** as its next project and perhaps reproducing.

I agree with many of your observations above, and I think you’ll agree with my final conclusion, but you see my general picture of how the parts fit together is completely different. When growth becomes unprofitable, completing the system to work by itself allow it to survive beyond its growth.

From my fairly broad study of this, this seems clearly to be the growth strategy of complex systems in nature that last significantly longer than their growth periods.


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