conserving institutions and Disruption and progress



“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

James Clear


** author’s preface: I originally published this piece in February of this year and given all the online babble about “new normal” chafing against people who want to go back to wherever they deemed ‘normal’ in the past I thought I would reshare. I’d like to note that pandemic or not, impact or not, businesses and society are, at their core, conserving institutions.


Scan the web and it is strewn with articles claiming the end of the way things were being done.

Disruption !!!!

Pick your topic and the pandemic has forever changed it.

Well. We are all about to find out how strong the ‘conserving institutions’ are.

What people seem to forget are some things Drucker told us.

“.. specifically, there are no results within the organization. All the results are on the outside. The only business results are produced by a customer who converts the costs and efforts of the business into revenues and profits through the willingness to exchange purchasing power for the products or services of the business. what happens inside any organization is effort and cost. There are no profit centers, there are only effort centers.”


Organizations are only as effective as if, and when, others use what it creates.

Organizations do not create results, all results exist outside the organization.

Organizations view ‘disruption’ not through results, but effort.

Ponder that last line. Debate it if you want. But think about the fact almost every business today, while worrying about results, is assessing the effort variables with incredible scrutiny, i.e., what changes to my situation’s efforts do I need to change, or conserve, for when the pandemic is over?

They typically view things within an arc of a trend, not changes in a trend. Unfortunately, the truly important things to a business are not trends, they are changes in trends. People usually view events as ‘disruption’, or disruptors, not of portends of trends to be evaluated. They see things occurring and they then decide whether to serve those things (apply effort against them) to attain desired results. This is a version of short term business that I call mercenary capitalism or exploiting situational context <not really caring if the context is of the moment or of time>.

All that said.

Conserving institutions seek to simply apply their efforts, maybe in some newish ways, to attain the same results that made then happy in the past (or to feed the progress they feel comfortable with). And therein lies the post-pandemic future – not in ‘disruption’ but in conserving.

That said.

We would be foolish to not believe every industry is a conserving institution. They not only see success in conserving, but survival in conserving <albeit they may couch it in ‘optimizing invested capital’ or ‘maximizing who we are’>. Therefore, we should view the new economy as a battle for progress, not change, against that which seeks to conserve what was perceived as progress already in hand.


I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that status quo, to a conserving institution, has a couple of characteristics that will make conserving seeming appealing.

Status quo does have movement within it.

No matter how often we bludgeon status quo, it is dynamic. Now. The dynamics may defeat each other to an end in which little progress is made. But. It is dynamic. There is activity within the organization, there are power struggles and resource allocation all working within some process & system. There are a variety of reasons why these things dampen the positive dynamics of the institution, but my point is that while it is conserving, there is a lot of activity happening within that conserving.


Status quo has a specific dynamic that makes it palatable to a conserving institution – inertia looks an awful lot like speed.


A unique feature of a solid conserving institution, or even an industry, is a strong center of gravity <this can be good – as in a vision or principles – or it can be bad – as in power>. This center of gravity is important because, in its conserving energy, it keeps all the expended energy from flying off into chaos, albeit it also sacrifices the progress, and the institution has all the feeling of speed and achievements and all the while its just one huge hamster wheel.


Conserving institutions are really good at absorbing ideas to create an illusion of progress, while maintaining the status quo, which makes status quo is a tricky topic. For example. The truth is a conserving institution can purchase a startup with progressive ideas or thinking and, yet, because it is a conserving institution, they can use it to maintain the status quo. To the outside world they are ‘showing progress’, yet, all they are doing is maintaining the status quo. This is the illusion of progress.

In addition. Conserving institutions have an incredible knack for suggesting they are rethinking things while all they are doing is rearranging deck chairs on whatever ship they are on (Titanic or a Celebrity Cruise – my point is you can make a shitload of money not doing anything new).

Look. Conserving has a number of dynamics beginning with the fact that institutions, institutional thinking, is actually grounded in simple (simplistic) beliefs. This happens because over time as the industry settles, people settle. And in their mutual setting there arises simplistic narratives and summaries of what they do, what they get and what is expected. The foundation of the industry, well, settles. The story of stories in business is a story in & of itself. Conserving businesses repeatedly ruin a good idea by deciding to not only standardize it, democratize it, but commoditisize it.

My point? Conserving institutions are good at settling and fight against not settling.


If I scan well respected publications, I can see how working from home may increase the productivity of employees, or not, it is better for the health of employees, or not, and connectivity is better, or not.

What I believe we are seeing is wishful thinking versus reality. Many of us always see the opportunities to fix some of the existing problems or maybe even try and build for the future and then there are a shitload of ‘conserving institutions’ fighting, sometimes with a well-funded balance sheet, to seek the opportunities in ‘getting back to the business of doing business.’


** note: power.

It is important to note an important factor in any conserving institution is power. Unless you understand how and to whom knowledge, and money, flows, you cannot understand the foundations of ‘conserving behavior.’ I would also note that the control of knowledge is often the crux of tomorrow’s worldwide struggle for power within all institutions (as knowledge leads to money). This idea on power bleeds into all institutions – business, education, society, etc. – Toffler suggested in Future Shock “how our lives get invaded in the future”. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that knowledge sharing is actually the impetus for change.

Power, in defending itself, conserves knowledge. Or, maybe more truthfully said, shares grudgingly with the intent to improve and conserve. Business always seeks to improve believing it is the key to profits and survival, but all the while constraining the existing institutions to conserve. Within that paradox resides success & failure.


“In a so-called information society, minds are not only the most important economic asset — companies with minds make money; companies with money and no minds lose the money — it’s the same thing in everything. The networks are not programmed by technology; technological tools are programmed by minds. So, the human consciousness [is the source], because everything now depends on our ability to generate knowledge and process information in every domain and activity. Knowledge and information are cognitive qualities from the human mind. Yes, human minds usually are connected to bodies, which means that you have to take into consideration the overall system of human existence, social services support, etc. But fundamentally, the human mind has always been, but more than ever now, the source of wealth, power, and control over everything.”

Manuel Castells Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley


Anyway. Conserving institutions sounds bad. It makes it sound like conserving, generally speaking, is bad. But. Not all process and structure is bad and the trick is always how to pluck the good out of the bad. Unfortunately, most organizational design encourages mediocrity, therefore, the current business structure conserves mediocrity at its best.


I could be wrong. It could be the pandemic has shaken the institutional context etch-a-sketch enough that many businesses, and industries, will reconfigure into a better way of doing and being in business.


I could also be right in that conserving institutions will fight with ragged claws to conserve what they had <figuring they would grow, show progress, simply through pandemic attrition>.

What I do know is that business, in general, likes to conserve.

Just ponder before making some prediction of the future of work.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.’

Charles Dickens


** author’s closing note: the unsaid thought is that maybe the most conserving institution is ‘the mind.’ But that is a different piece for a different time.



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Written by Bruce