GM and Sustainabiity

Again I go to David Brooks for the theme of today's post. Brooks' column was all about the GM bankruptcy and the quagmire that it has become for all those who have to deal with it. But that's not all of what I saw in the article. Brooks has focused on the culture at GM as the cause of the quagmire and infers that none of the steps that are being taken will do much to change it.

Bureaucratic restructuring won’t fix the company. Clever financing schemes won’t fix the company. G.M.’s core problem is its corporate and workplace culture — the unquantifiable but essential attitudes, mind-sets and relationship patterns that are passed down, year after year.

...The problems have not gone unrecognized and heroic measures have been undertaken, but technocratic reforms from within have not changed the culture. Technocratic reforms from Washington won’t either. For the elemental facts about the Obama restructuring plan are these: Bureaucratically, the plan is smart. Financially, it is tough-minded. But when it comes to the corporate culture that is at the core of G.M.’s woes, the Obama approach is strangely oblivious. The Obama plan won’t revolutionize G.M.’s corporate culture. It could make things worse.

Now, go to the article and substitute "unsustainability" for every negative term used to describe GM's plight. Over the years GM has grown to become a complex system in every sense of the word. The machine part of the GM system made cars (although too many) and still does, but not enough people brought them at a price that produces a profit. The system, as Brooks discusses, has become rigid over time and has failed to adapt to changes in its larger environment. And now it has collapsed, just as the financial system that formed the larger environment of GM's own complexity has fallen. Along with the ability to produce cars, emergent properties like profit, jobs, and its iconic image have disappeared.

Brooks argues that all the remedies to restore the system are forms of technocratic quick fixes. I agree. This is the same approach being take to address the larger case of unsustainability. The causes, like those at GM, rest in the culture, not the mechanics. Brooks concludes with a deeply pessimistic note.

We’ve seen this before, albeit in different context: An overconfident government throws itself into a dysfunctional culture it doesn’t really understand. The result is quagmire. The costs escalate. There is no exit strategy.

I agree in part, but not entirely with his pessimism. The possibility of change always exists. The current "GM solution" depended in part on people acting against their immediate self-interests in order to restore the system and attempt to adapt to a changed world. This is a sign that at least some of the players have begun to recognize the addictive patterns of the past. Parts of the culture at GM will be very different, even after only a few months.

My more optimistic take comes from the model of culture change I work with. In this model, culture is conservative and reinforced by normal practice, but can and usually does shift when these practices are upset by changes in the primary structure. In this case, norms, beliefs, resources, authority--all the categories of structure--will change quite quickly. The results will be unpredictable. Hopefully the monitors will not be paralyzed, as Brooks thinks, but continue to learn and adapt.

Maybe the GM system can find its own form of sustainability. I wish the same could be said for the global system. We are still only tinkering with it. If we wait until symptoms of system collapse become as real as those at GM have, it will probably be too late to restore the system by any means. Flourishing as the quality of sustainability is much more important than cars and jobs. Without it, cars and jobs won't amount to much.

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