Larman's Laws of Organizational Behavior

(Spanish translation)(Russian translation) (Japanese translation)(Persian/Farsi translation)(Polish translation)(Portuguese translation)

After decades of observation and organizational consulting, here are Larman's Laws of Organizational Behavior. These are observations rather than laws to follow ;)

1. Organizations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.

2. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.

3. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be derided as “purist”, “theoretical”, “revolutionary”, "religion", and “needing pragmatic customization for local concerns” — which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo.

4. As a corollary to (1), if after changing the change some managers and single-specialists are still displaced, they become “coaches/trainers” for the change, frequently reinforcing (2) and (3), and creating the false impression ‘the change has been done’, deluding senior management and future change attempts, after which they become industry consultants.

5. (in large established orgs) Culture follows structure. And in tiny young orgs, structure follows culture.


A longer form is, In big established groups, culture/behavior/mindset follows and is influenced by changes in the organizational system and design. That is, in large established organizations, if you want to really change culture, you have to start with changing the organizational system (groups, teams, roles and responsibilities, hierarchies, career paths, policies, measurement and reward mechanisms, etc), because culture does not really change otherwise. Said another way, the organizational system is strongly influential on mindset and behavior.

The systems-thinking advocate John Seddon also observed this: "Attempting to change an organization’s culture is a folly, it always fails. Peoples’ behavior (the culture) is a product of the system; when you change the system peoples’ behavior changes."

This is an observation in big established organizations; in contrast, in small start ups, it's the reverse: structure follows culture. That is, the (probably simple and informal) organizational design reflects the mindset and culture of the small number of members in the start up. As the organization grows, at some point it usually reverses to culture follows structure.

And "culture follows structure" (in large groups) is why purely “mindset” approaches such as organizational learning are not very sticky or impactful by themselves in large groups, and why frameworks such as Scrum (that have a strong focus on structural change at the start) tend to more quickly impact culture — if the structural change implications of Scrum are actually realized.