We don’t stay the same.

People and organizations are either getting better or getting worse.  

“We tend to think of an organization as a machine-like object,” Robert E. Quinn writes in his terrific book The Deep Change Field Guide.  “Yet it is often more fruitful to think of an organization as a living system that has a trajectory: it is either gaining energy or losing energy.”

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that unless work is done to the contrary, a system tends to close down and move toward entropy or a loss of energy.

What do we call the work done to gain energy and reverse the natural tendency toward entropy?


Unless there is leadership, Robert tells us, an organization will veer toward slow death.

Symptoms of slow death include: lack of constructive conflict, people taking care of themselves rather than the organization, being too busy to do the important work, inter-group conflict, wild and uncoordinated changes, and the loss of faith in leaders.

In organizations experiencing slow death, the work feels meaningless and hopeless.  People feel disengaged and disempowered.  Self-interest and lack of excellence are so prevalent that we come to expect and accept them.  

Worse, we develop rationalizations for why we can’t do the right thing. 

“When someone suggests that we play a role in creating a problem and might need to change,” Robert writes: “We often respond… by practicing denial.  Denial… often leads to slow death of organizations and individuals.”

Robert believes slow death is becoming more prevalent because of the increasing pace of change: “Today, in a world of constant change, we see slow death more often…  Having to face the endless challenges of organizational life can corrode our motivation and initiative.”

There is a better way.  More tomorrow.


Reflection:  Are there symptoms of slow death in my organization?

Action:  Discuss the idea of slow death with a colleague.

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