Form Follows Function, Except…

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This blog originally posted on the Community & Regional Resilience Institute  

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law.” – Louis Sullivan (1896)

We’ve all heard the old rubric, “Form follows function,” apparently first coined by Sullivan discussing the design of large buildings. But it is just as true of our bureaucracies. As I’ve ranted discussed in a previous post (see Bureaucracy and Community Resilience), “bureaucracies exist to carry out routine functions efficiently and in a consistent manner.”

What I didn’t say (and probably should have!) is that bureaucracies usually are tuned to be efficient under normal conditions. Thus, the bureaucracy’s structure – its form – reflects business as usual.  The bureaucracy works because its structure is consistent with the tasks it must perform.

Sullivan goes on to say, “Where function does not change, form does not change.” But what happens when a bureaucracy is faced with a significant change in its working environment – during a crisis, for example – that forces changes in how it functions?

The short answer, of course, is that it tries to handle the unusual in its usual manner. Its organizational structure – the bureaucracy’s form, hopefully well-tuned to normal conditions – now governs its functioning. If the organization’s form does not change, then its ability to function efficiently and consistently may well suffer. On the other hand, if the bur adapts quickly to the new set of conditions, it may find an opportunity in change to reach a higher level of performance.

Let me look at some very disparate examples to illustrate this. Hurricane Katrina had a major impact on the forest enterprise in the impacted regions (esp. in lower Mississippi). In the most affected areas, 40 percent of the forests were damaged. According to the Forest Service, the downed or damaged timber could have produced 800,000 single family homes and 25 million tons of paper products. The EPA and Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality had no plans for dealing with this massive amount of solid debris. It took several months before the owners of downed timber could gain permits for wet storage areas to preserve their timber, primarily because the katrina wind contoursregulators involved did not change their bureaucratic structures (and thus not their processes) to deal with this unusual situation. While the permit process was expedited, this was accomplished by simply adding more people, not through restructuring to better handle the problem. As a result, over half of the timber was lost with major repercussions on the entire forest products enterprise. In addition, the downed timber led to a situation in which there was literally a new forest fire in Mississippi every day during the spring, summer and fall of the following year. In short, regulatory functions were dictated by organizational structures tuned to “normal” circumstances; i.e., form dictated function, and resulted in poor performance. Unfortunately, the regulators have not really learned anything from this – in the face of another Katrina, it would still take months before storage sites for downed timber would obtain permits.

Waffle House provides a very different example. It plans for surprises, and is organized so that it can function under almost any set of circumstances. It clearly has learned from past experience and has adapted itself so that restaurants impacted by disasters can open with restricted menus. If workers can’t get to a Waffle House location (as happened to my community in January because of an ice storm), workers can be temporarily brought in from other locations to minimize service interruptions.

WalMart provides an excellent example of finding opportunity in change. In the ‘90’s, virtually every corporation in America spent huge amounts on information technology. For most companies, the gains in productivity (i.e., the return on investment) were modest. However, WalMart used this technological change to reorganize its supply chains so that it quickly gained a tremendous competitive advantage over its competitors. In other words, it altered its form to improve functioning.

Form follows function, except when changing circumstances demand changes in how an organization functions. In the earlier blog on bureaucracies, I pointed out the factors that determine how rapidly an organization can change: its history, its age, its ability to collaborate, its ability to innovate, and, most importantly, its leadership. The resilience of an organization, or a community, is manifested in how rapidly it adapts – how quickly it changes its form – so that it can function effectively in a new environment.


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