In medicine, autoimmune disease is one in which ‘the body produces antibodies that attack its own tissues, leading to the deterioration and in some cases to the destruction of such tissue’.
Organizations have their own immune system diseases.
An organizational autoimmune disease is one in which the exaggeration of immune reactions as ‘defense’ by, say, functions, ends up corroding the very same functions.
(1) An exaggeration and obsession with high performance teams leads to teams which are performing reasonably OK to be constantly pushed to unnecessary high levels of cohesion, with more training, more team building and more uniformity. Results: greater groupthink and less innovation due to a rather incestuous view of the world. Treatment: let teams perform at reasonable levels of excellence (excellence is not perfection) and stop converting the company into a Perfect Teamocracy. Those teams may not have any dis-functionality that require ‘team building treatment’.
(2) The organizational immune system will work as intended, what else?
Organizational systems will prevent themselves from solving problems created by themselves. This is more acute when survival goals are greater than effectiveness goals.
All organizational systems (read functional systems such as HR, communications, strategic planning, project team structure) create their own immune system, even when they profess not to, and say to aim at improvements. The immune and defense mechanisms can be very visible when, for example, these systems create a bubble for themselves with their people talking to each other but rather isolated from the ‘the business’. In those cases, ‘the business’ will use them in an utilitarian way (disguised as ‘business partnership’) for services, problem solving, Bad Cops, or simply to find vendors. Flattering for the bubble. Self-reinforcing.
Suggested diagnostic paths: when invoking externally inflicted system problems, see first if those problems are self-inflicted; this is highly likely. If the system claims lack of empowerment, call the inhabitants bluff and give them on spot, unconditional permission to solve anything.
Also, watch for increasing complexity (e.g small company duplicating systems of a big company) and increasing length of decision making. Some organizations suffer from ‘the indecision is final’ syndrome’, showing clear symptoms of Information Bias (‘the tendency to seek more and more information when it does not affect action’). The later is diagnostic of an immune system in hyperactivity (even when it is not obvious what or who is attacking the system). Symptoms: people will ask for more and more market research data, benchmarking, testimonials, references, refinement of questions, new questions, new formats, new round of presentations and anything else that pretend to be crucial. Ask yourself why. Chances are it has nothing to do with the business problem itself. Suggested treatment: challenge ‘the system’ to have 3 people making a decision in 3 days, when it’s working on 30 people making that kind of decision in 30 days. Suppress the immune system with a surprising high dose of common sense.