The Detection and Quantification of Organisational Dysfunction

“I can prove anything by statistics except the truth.”

George Canning – Very briefly Prime Minister who also said the rather beautifully nuanced “with keen, discriminating sight, black ’s not so black – nor white so very white.” I won’t try to do the man any biographical justice in this small section though my quick reading on the Canning has proved deeply interesting. He is the shortest serving PM of the UK dying in office on his 119th day in office. He’s regarded as somewhat of a ‘lost leader’ due to the swift decline in his health and outstanding oratory.

“In the most dysfunctional organizations, signalling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now).”

Peter Thiel – co-founder of PayPal and Author of a couple of books, one more controversial than the other.

“You aren’t a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met.”

Johann Hari – This is a great summation of his book Lost Connections in a single sentence. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found its description of and recommended solutions to depression and anxiety disorders highly compelling. I was disappointed to see these ideas rejected by a great number of people who found these ideas to be either a restatement of existing thoughts or ignorant of current academic standards. I’m unable to validate either of these concerns and am to this day convinced that this is an urgent, useful and informative book.

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

J. Krishnamurti – Highly quotable philosopher, speaker and writer. This is one of those phrases that has escaped its author and has become somewhat of an idiom or maxim more than a quotation. Fundamentally it does not need Krishnamurti to say it as it would be equally profound even if said by other people (try “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Paris Hilton, or “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Homer Simpson, perhaps even “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Kanye West).

Is function different from dysfunction?

How dysfunctional is your organisation? To what extent is this question different from asking ‘how functional is your organisation, and, how do we determine the extent of this dysfunction so that we might measure it over temporal or structural dimensions? These are questions that my recent reading has failed to answer and I am tempted to think that this topic is somewhat underdeveloped. Strategic optimisation and decision-making thought takes a level of dysfunction as a background and moved deliberately away from it.

Measurement and empiricism seem to be often focussed around the benefits achieved given the imposition of optimal tactics and I have not yet observed a committed effort to analyse dysfunction within businesses. This seems a shame as I would suggest that the challenges of measuring how well something works are distinct from how well something doesn’t work rather than presenting chirally. Opposites are sometimes more interesting than reversals just as the rightnesses and leftnesses of our hands are maintained as they are rotated through space.

In order to explore the idea that measuring the extent of dysfunction might be different from measuring the extent of function we may consider the necessities of medical diagnosis wherein we find that measurements of sickness are distinct from wellness. We study the particular manifestations and presentations of certain conditions in a way that we would not be compelled to do for a patient who is not suffering from that disease. When someone is well we do not call for a battery of blood tests as we don’t need to see in which way they are well in the same way that we may want to see in which way someone is not well and is, of course, a product of diagnostic necessity. Though there are some tests that are administered to people who are well and otherwise we can see that there is a need for specific measurement of dysfunction in order to define effective corrective intervention.

Things can exist in different states of function and dysfunction and the measurement of these is not simply an extrapolation of either state into its polar opposite. This is to say that the instinct to measure states along continua may be misleading given some amount of complexity or specificity. Why then in business are we more compelled to measure function as a proxy for dysfunction when there may be particular readings within broken machines that may be of significant use? This may be an artefact of optimism or the self-evident truth that we must fix objectives in place with indicators of performance and the positive assertion of gain is more advantageous than the quantified eradication of dysfunction.

If we were to measure the state of an organisation through deliberate quantification of its dysfunction expressed in terms beyond the absence of function how might we do it? The visual model below shows a possible model that could be used t0 describe the main principles of organisational dysfunction. For the purposes of this essay we will accept a model of distinct elements that must co-operate and co-ordinate to realise goals as our shorthand for organisations. It should be noted at this point that there are of course other models available and reality far more complex than can be captured within this sketch.

The machines above show distinct types of dysfunction. These are provided as a framework upon which to hang a system of measurement of dysfunction. The machine in question is a simple lever-switch wherein a force is applied to the “Tilting part” which then makes contact with the “Sensing part”. This machine is provided for illustrative purposes only though is a useful metaphor in a few ways such as the distinct operation of its components and the fragility of its dependencies which can easily be manipulated into failure.

The machine has a simple set of three components that conspire to connect the ‘Tilting part’ to the ‘Sensing’ part. The functional machine is shown in the first illustration with the different types of dysfunction laid out in figures A through G. I doubt that this is an exhaustive list of the dysfunctional permutations, and I am not convinced that the list does not include some duplication or conflation of types. We can see that there are many more ways in which the machine can be broken, to some extent, than working and some of those broken states are more broken than others in that the machine’s goal may be met in a sub-optimal (or differently optimal) manner than intended.

Each of these types of dysfunction can be considered archetypes of dysfunction that could be detected, quantified and addressed in their own way. This taxonomy of dysfunction may be a more optimal route to functional organisations than a focus only on the extent of functionality. These archetypes are explained below with possible forms of measurement and detection. Please note that the quantification notes that appear here are, broadly, abstract to account for organisational differences. I should imagine that the realisation of these principles within dysfunctional organisations would require the substitution of vague terms (say ‘output’) with concrete metrics (say ‘billed-orders’).

Dysfunction of organisation (fig A)

The machine is unable to operate as the way in which the component parts are organised (in this case ordering is used as the metaphor) means that any functional subcomponent is unable to produce a meaningful result. This may be considered to be something of a leadership or strategic failing. Each component is functioning in a manner that is desirable but the net of all activity is ultimately ineffective due to some high-level failure of design.

Measurement of dysfunctions of organisations may be achieved in the following ways:

  • Net-output over combined-component-output.
  • Leadership understanding of component purpose.
  • Organisational similarity to best-practice or comparable high-performing organisations.

Dysfunction of alignment (fig B)

The machine is unable to function as its ‘Pushing part’ is pushing in the wrong direction. An insufficient review of this component may deduce that it is functional insofar as it is indeed pushing though a contextual understanding of the total purpose of the machine is needed to understand whether the component is really contributing. I expect that this is a common form of dysfunction and is has an intuitive attractiveness to most analysts of this issue. As an example we might consider a research team that is pursuing its own intellectual curiosity rather than the necessary components of marketable products. The research unit may be highly functional though disastrously misaligned to its necessary function.

Measurement of the dysfunction of alignment might be measurable in the following ways:

  • Sub-component understanding of organisational goals.
  • Sub-component contribution to organisational output.
  • Organisation adoption and deployment rates of sub-component output.

Dysfunction of absence (fig C)

The machine is unable to function due to a missing part. In this case the perfectly functional “Pushing part” and “Sensing part” are unable to affect total functionality due to there being no “Sensing part”. In organisations, this type of missing capability can render the activity of component parts to be strategically worthless. This seems to be common where organisations are asked to translate creative outputs into marketable products. The variability of creative output can present a challenge to even the most capable organisations wherein there is no guarantee that the creative products can be taken to market.

Measurement of dysfunction of absence may be achieved through:

  • Organisational similarity to best-practice or comparable high-performing organisations. (This is perhaps less useful than earlier as missing components may become more apparent given rapid change, upscaling or adaptation to unfamiliar or unknown environments.)
  • Capability-blocked initiatives over all failed-initiatives.
  • Processes with operating models over all processes.

Dysfunction of method (fig D)

The machine is suffering from a single component carrying out its action in a way that is counter-productive as a whole. The ‘Pushing part’ is aligned to the organisational goals in that it knows that it must provide a downward force to the ‘Tipping part’ though the way in which it does this is ultimately catastrophic. Examples within organisations may include phasing issues, technological barriers, communication issues and hierarchical problems. This is an interesting and challenging manner of dysfunction as nearly everything is working as it should it is simply the interaction between components that is flawed.

Measurement of this methodical dysfunction may be acheived as follows:

  • Sub-component understanding of dependent sub-components
  • Negotiated sub-component interactions over all sub-component interactions.
  • Variability of sub-component interaction duration

Dysfunction of bypass (fig E)

The machine is sub-optimally functional (as is machine G: Dysfunction of optimisation) as the goal of the machine is achieved at the expense of operational harmony or utilisation. In this case the role of the “Tipping part” is being carried out by the “Pushing part” directly. This has made the “Tipping part” essentially redundant even though the dipping part may be better suited to the function of transferring pressure to the “Sensing part”. This machine is dysfunctional right now as the redundancy is not addressed. The design of the machine may mature into a more efficient mechanism over time, suffer on with the vestigial component or collapse revealing the inadequacies of the over-reach. These sorts of bypasses are common in organisations that contain malleable, helpful, components as well as expansionistically-minded individuals.

Measures of bypass dysfunction may include:

  • Shared sub-component objectives over all sub-component objectives
  • Capability auditing of subcomponents
  • Information flow multiplication rates between sub-components

Dysfunction of action (fig F)

The machine is unable to function as the “Pushing part” is unable to generate a downward force on the “Tipping part”. This machine is unable to operate a single element has had a catastrophic failure of some kind that has resulted in an ineffective whole. Within organisations this occurs when work is not executed by those responsible for doing it, this might well be a cultural, managerial or capability-derived issue.

Measurment of this dysfunction of action could be handled in these ways:

  • Sub-component objective failure rate
  • Capability auditing of subcomponent and cultural measurement of some kind (Atrophy, E-Sat e.t.c.)
  • Investment in sub-component over planned investment

Dysfunction of optimisation (fig G)

Lastly we can see that this machine is functional though it seems that the “Pushing part” is generating more force on the “Tipping part” than the machine requires. This may be seen as a bottleneck and may be representative of an over investment in one area or an under-investment in another. This may or may not be the opposite to the ‘dysfunction of action’ depending on the reason for the over or under performance. The ‘dysfunction of optimisation’ machine is dysfunctional not because is incapable of producing the desired outcome but rather because it does so inelegantly and inefficiently.

Detection and measurement of the dysfunction of optimisation may be measured in the following ways:

  • Backlogged initiatives over completed initiatives (and rate of change)
  • Investment in sub-component over planned investment or advised investment
  • Sub-component output variation and total output over time dependent subcomponent output variation and total output.


The simple diagrams shown in this essay are merely abstractions that exist to enable a description of an element of dysfunction. In real organisations the mechanisms that govern input, output and performance of sub-component systems are far more complicated. These small illustrations allow for the generation of principles that appear in reality as emergent phenomena subtly nested within functional and dysfunctional processes. Each of these dysfunctions may manifest to some extent, in collaboration with, obscured by or presenting as some other dysfunction. The real machine may in fact look more like some grand fractal network existing in some form of n-dimensional space. Perhaps more like the image at the header of this essay wherein each connection may be functional or dysfunctional as is every combination of every connection.

The world can only every be ’tile-over’ with models like the ones in this essay. Reality is too complex to submit to these crude taxonomies though it is my hope that this examination of dysfunction may be of some use in the future. It seems clear to me that there exist divisions between organisational dysfunctions that can be usefully articulated through distinct patterns of measurement. I plan to build on this work in the future, refine this model and see what can be learned about organisations through this understanding.

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