Creating Sane Organisations

Creating Sane Organisations

Premise: If we want to work in sane organisations, and given that many organisations are quite insane, we are faced with the challenge of improving “organisational sanity”.

What is Insanity?

“insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Whilst cute, and widely quoted, this definition doesn’t quite cut it for me. I prefer:

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

or this:

“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.

~ R. D. Laing

And perhaps the best quote I’ve found – in the context of organisations, at least:

“Insanity is knowing that what you’re doing is completely idiotic, but still, somehow, you just can’t stop it.”

~ Elizabeth Wurtzel

So What is Sanity?

Alfred Korzybski wrote in his Theory of Sanity,

“Sanity is tied to the structural fit or lack of it between our reactions to the world and what is actually going on in the world.”

He expressed this notion as a map-territory analogy:

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

Given that science continually seeks to adjust its theories structurally to fit the facts, i.e., adjusts its maps to fit the territory, and thus advances more rapidly than any other field, he believed that the key to understanding sanity would be found in the study of the methods of science (and the study of structure-as-revealed-by-science).

Organisations and Sanity

Wouldn’t it be great if society and business knowledge had advanced to the point where creating sane organisations was a well-understood problem, with trusted and well-tried solutions? I have hopes that one day we may get there, although I doubt whether it will be in my lifetime, or yours.

“I have found that humans, even ‘insane’, are extremely logical provided you trace their premises – except their premises have no realization in actuality. So that’s the main point, not a problem of logic. From some premises, some consequences follow.”

~ Alfred Korzybski, 1947

Until that far-off day, we must accept that organisations are born, and grow up, with precious little thought to their sanity – or otherwise. This being the case, and assuming that we would like the organisations within which we work to be sane – or at least, saner than they are presently – we are faced with the challenge of improving “organisational sanity”.

What is a Sane Organisation?

Korzybski believed that sanity is the ability to consciously adapt to a changing environment (model it, map it). If the world changes, the sane change with it, while the insane refuse change.

Erich Fromm wrote in his book “The Sane Society” that not only can individuals be insane, but entire societies (and by reduction, organisations):

“It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth… Just as there is a ‘Folie à deux’ (madness shared by two) there is a ‘folie à millions.’ The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

So what is a sane organisation?

For me, it is any organisation which thinks for itself, in context. Which knows itself, and recognises that it needs to continually monitor its context, in case that context changes.

And by “knows itself” I mean something akin to the inscription in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know Thyself”, and in particular in the manner Plato uses the phrase as a maxim for Socrates in describing his motive for dialogue.

“To find yourself, think for yourself.”

~ Socrates

See also: Self-knowledge (Psychology) and in particular, Self-perception Theory, the latter involving as it does validation or ‘testing’ of one’s supposed presuppositions, attitudes, and beliefs through examination of actual behaviours.

Is a Sane Organisation More or Less Effective?

Whilst sane organisations sounds like it might be a good idea, not least from the perspective of the folks that have to work in organisations, can we justify the effort in improving sanity? Do saner organisations have any tangible advantages over their typically less sane cousins? Does it translate to the bottom-line? And is that a sane question, in itself?

Personally, I think it’s self-evident that saner organisations have advantages, both for the folks working in them, and for the folks who have to deal with them (e.g. customers, suppliers). And if we believe (many do not, it seems) that happier employees means more productive employees (and happier customers too, btw) then we can predict a positive impact on the effectiveness of the organisation (and thence to the bottom-line).

Caveat: In an insane world, sanity may be less of a commercial advantage than we might first think?

“We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”

~ Socrates

Sanity, Enlightenment, Love and Wholeness

In a recent post i wrote about Zen and the enlightened organisation, making a plea for the benefits of bringing “enlightenment” – in the classical Zen sense – to organisations.

“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”

~ Erich Fromm

I’ve also written before about the problems of balkanisation and alienation within organisations – both aspects of a lack of wholeness c.f. David Bohm:

“A corporation is organised as a system – it has this department, that department, that department… they don’t have any meaning separately; they only can function together. And also the body is a system. Society is a system in some sense. And so on.”

~ David Bohm, Thought as a System (1992)

For me, these four ideas – sanity, love, enlightenment and wholeness – seem inextricably interwoven.

– Bob

Further Reading

Sanity – Wikipedia entry
Science and Sanity ~ Alfred Korzybski (full book online here, quick intro here)
Korzybski Quotes in Context – Web page
Neurological Relativism and Time-binding – Interview with Robert Anton Wilson (audio)
Symptoms of the Dysfunctional Organisation – White Paper
Wholeness and the Implicate Order ~ David Bohm

  1. Hi Bob,

    Nice post. You define a “sane organisation” as “any organisation which thinks for itself, in context. Which knows itself, and recognises that it needs to continually monitor its context, in case it changes.” I think perhaps this definition is more about situational awareness than sanity, not unrelated but maybe not the core of the definition. Maybe an elaboration on the phrase “knows itself” ala Korzybski’s position that sanity is related to the validity of the presuppositions in use? Not just “knows” but perhaps also “validates” or “tests”?


    • Hi Gus,

      Thanks for joining the conversation – and your meritorious suggestion. I’ll work it in soonest.

      – Bob

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