It’s called the Shirky principle, after Clay Shirky, prolific American author of bestsellers such as ‘Here comes everybody’(2008) and ‘Cognitive Surplus’(2010), who writes and consults on the impact of the internet and other social topics. It reads: ‘Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution’.
Commentators on the Shirky’s principle, which was articulated in 2010, often associated it with other ‘paradoxical’ principles. The one I really like is Upton Sinclair’s (1878-1968): ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’.
Some organizational cultures are solutions focused. They pride themselves in solving problems. So, they have lots of them. They need them, obviously. Dedication to problems (to solving them) could result in admiring them. In admiring them, problems may be prolonged, perhaps perpetuated. So, they can be solved. This is how systems work. In a funny way, you could say.
It’s easy to create a structure around problem solving, and the structure then becomes the problem itself. Just to refer to one example from the hundreds you will find on simple reflection, the matrix organization was created as a way to solve the problem of Divisional and Functional groups or Units not talking to each other. When the matrix became a mantra, a form of organization that ‘everybody should have’, it also became the real problem based on its own complexity. But it perpetuated itself because it was ‘the solution’ to an older problem.
Structures, process, systems and ‘functions’ in organizations tend to preserve their own existence. This is not even conscious or malicious. It’s an automatic mechanism in a large system such as medium and large enterprises. The issue is not to criticise this, but to acknowledge that this is ‘always’ happening.
Bureaucracy, group think, recycling of data, over inclusiveness, are all potential symptoms of ‘problem preservation’. They are in front of us all the time. We don’t need a doctor to tell us that we have the symptoms. But the Upton Sinclair principle may apply: we may blind ourselves because of our own interests.
Only self-reflection, critical thinking, the ability to think ‘maybe the problem is now us’, can provide the health of the system.
We need to question ourselves whether the structure that we have created to address a problem or a challenge is becoming a bigger problem than the one we are supposed to solve. Perhaps, sometimes, a problem unsolved is a better place than a whole structure trying to solve it.