Sunset over rocks

Dying with dignity: time for palliative care for corporations?

Organisations do die; palliative care could reduce the destructive and increase the creative impact of their passing

I was recently working on a Forward Institute event with the rather brilliant Scott Morrison of The Boom!1 He asked the audience “what are the most heretical questions you could ask about your organisation?, This question has sent me off on all sorts of mental meanders and what-ifs. The latest being: Should our organisations really strive to live forever? Could it be a good thing for organisations to die off at some point?”

Much of management and organisational development is centred on the assumption that longevity is a good thing. That being able to reinvent, restructure and pivot are the practices we need. That endless regeneration and never-ending existence are the ultimate goals. That survival is the ultimate performance measure2. But is it? Everything in nature ages and ultimately dies with new growth flourishing in the space created. In reality, organisations will have their time in the sun and then pass on (with increasingly few passing the 60-year mark) and some suggesting as little as 18 years is a reasonable life expectancy3 yet the myth of immortality is a strong one. A myth that often seems to lead to painful deaths, heralded by increasingly bellicose claims of reinvention, promises of new dawns and possibilities and ending with dramatic and painful collapses.

Others have argued in favour of the value of corporate death. Joseph Schumpter is perhaps the most famous with his idea of ‘creative destruction’ and the argument that large companies are inherently inefficient, and ultimately suffer from ‘entropy’ where they spend more time managing themselves than doing whatever it is they are supposed to do in the world. But there is a long distance between what is good in principle and what is good in practice. Schumpter’s principle of ‘creative destruction’ often in practice means the destruction of people’s lives and livelihoods, and, especially when an organisation has a strong geographical footprint, their communities. But what if responsible leadership included knowing when your organisation’s time was up? What if with good palliative care organisational demise need not be ‘destructive’? Maybe palliative care could create a graceful decline and provide individuals and communities with the opportunity to move on in timely, happy, and healthy ways?

What might organisational palliative care look like?

Step one: Timely diagnosis

By acknowledging that the organisation has reached its twilight years we can all prepare for a transition. Customers have time to find alternative options with less risk of price gouging by unscrupulous competitors. Suppliers have time to diversify and employees can think about what new skills they might need and take the time to find new opportunities. Local markets won’t be flooded with a sudden unemployed workforce all competing with one another.

Step two: Managed decline

Our organisational models are built for growth – we know how to add and do more – but how about doing less? Perhaps staff move from full to part time employment or the entire organisation shifts to a 4-day workweek. There will undoubtably be plenty of puzzles to manage as we simply haven’t built organisations that are alive but slowing down; we will need markets not scared of big players that are doing a good job but reducing rather than expanding their activities. Customers need to value the old-age organisational citizens in their world and not just the young and new. There needs to be confidence in the provision of ongoing support for products whose life cycle may be longer than that of their producer.

Step three: Make good choices about divesting assets

Are there buildings, machines, or existing inventory to be sold off? The current mode of sudden collapse makes these sorts of assets easy prey for post-bankruptcy acquisition often allowing asset stripping by predatory interests. But what if these assets could be moved on with care and consideration – perhaps with the money raised forming an inheritance for the employees or communities that will be affected by their passing?

Step four: Celebrate the passing

I remember the passing of the British high-street staple Woolworths4; a final splutter of press attention and then a quick burn out… and with it a load of pain for the 30,000 people that worked there. I also remember the aftermath; the flurry of joy at shared memories of ‘the Woolworths bargain bin’- a place many of my generation bought their first music albums (Tears for Fears for me). At the time I hadn’t been in a Woolworths store for many years, but its passing brought back a nostalgic memory of happy time and ritual. Maybe palliative care would include a celebration of past success rather than glorifying in the moments of collapse?

The reality is most private sector organisations do, eventually, age and decline. And perhaps this is not such a bad thing. Perhaps we just haven’t yet learned how to responsibly help them age with grace and pass with as little pain as possible for the people that depend on them. All living systems include death as well as birth; as we face the climate crisis and the need to reimagine our economies, our modes of energy production and much else besides perhaps ‘organisational palliative care’ can help us create the new world we need?

Wasafiri currently works with the Forward Institute, a not for profit that works with many of the UK’s leading public, private and charitable organisations to make ‘responsible leadership the only form of leadership’. Through the use of Systemcraft we help leaders tackle the complex problems they and their organisations are wrestling with as they play their part in creating a more sustainable and equitable world.

Written with thanks to Adrian Brown, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Impact for the, as always, help to think about things a little differently.

https://www.imd.org/research-knowledge/articles/why-you-will-probably-live-longer-than-most-big-companies/

Photo by Jenna Beekhuis on Unsplash

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