Survival is a wicked problem faced by every organization

Organizations need to innovate to survive and prosper or they face extinction (average lifespan is only 40-50 years). Many companies have failed to survive.


An organization’s natural mind set is to focus on protecting and repeating past successes. As a result, they become more and more inward facing.

And as they become more and more inward facing, they lose touch with their customers and the socio-cultural context in which they exist. They lose their creativity.

“…there is accumulating evidence that corporations fail because the prevailing thinking and language of management are too narrowly based on the prevailing thinking and language of economics. To put it another way: Companies die because their managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget that their organizations’ true nature is that of a community of humans. The legal establishment, business educators, and the financial community all join them in this mistake.” – THE LIVING COMPANY: Habits for survival in a turbulent business environment (BusinessWeek)

Just think of a toddler that’s learned to crawl.

They’ll never learn to walk if they focus on protecting and repeating past successes. Fortunately they don’t focus on the past. They push boundaries and experiment, take risks, fail (fall) repeatedly. But they keep trying until they master this new experience and then move onto the next one. At least until they become adults when all too often, like organizations,  the boundaries of what’s been proven to work in the past and fear of failure stop this learning and growth cycle.

Because the world around us is constantly changing and evolving, the future can’t be predicted through algorithms, measures, and processes based on what’s worked in the past. As customers and the socio-cultural context in which they live, work, and play changes, many organizations aren’t able to adapt.

Gordon MacKenzie, in the wonderful little book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, called this entangled pattern of behavior a giant hairball.

Unless organizations can find a way to break through bureaucracy, escape the tyranny of proof, and untangle threads from the giant hairball to weave something new, the immunization system of the organization will stamp out the very ideas that give them the chance to innovate and survive.

The future has to be invented.

  • To invent means taking risks
  • To invent requires creativity based on deep empathy
  • To invent requires reaching outside the boundaries of the organization to form collaborative networks of customers, partners, suppliers, communities, and governments

For ideas on how to do this, we have to look for new tools and approaches outside the business schools that have failed us.

We have to develop a design mindset.

We have to become design thinkers.

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    About Joyce Hostyn

    3 Responses to “Survival is a wicked problem faced by every organization”

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    1. deb lavoy says:

      Joyce! did you know that I’ve recently become obsessed with wicked problems and how collaborative tools and culture can address them? Loved the post, including the title. We need to have lunch. :-)

    2. Joyce Hostyn says:

      Hey deb! Glad you enjoyed the post. This is actually first in a 5 part series (when writing my first post I discovered it was far far too long, so broke it into multiple posts). I completely agree with you that collaborative tools have a strong role to play by connecting people, bridging silos, and putting collective intelligence to work. Culture is critical though. If an organization has no history of collaboration or sharing, design thinking will have a tough time flourishing. When do you next plan to be in Waterloo?

    3. Marian Burdsall says:

      Doing some small business consulting with DJ Morris & Associates and started thinking about how design thinking might help with (or maybe even avoid) the crises organizations face as they grow (see the Greiner Growth Model – good description here of Greiner’s model.

      Need to do more thinking about this, but if, as Greiner suggests, all organizations go through these stages and face these crises, can organizations use design thinking to break free of these stages or minimize the crisis points? Could design thinking help organizations in the latter stages become more like they were in the first stage?

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