The Myth of Organisational Self-Correction

Rorisang Tshabalala

The Enemy of Cultural Entropy

First century Roman author, Pliny the Elder, once observed of the Western European Low Lands : “There, twice in every twenty-four hours, the ocean’s vast tide sweeps in a flood over a large stretch of land and hides Nature’s everlasting controversy about whether this region belongs to the land or to the sea.” Similarly, the controversy about whether the forces of entropy prevail upon organisational culture remains everlasting.

On the one hand entropy is a natural phenomenon, left alone for long enough any system will descend into disorder and that is what is defined as entropy; it is an observable, scientifically described phenomenon. On the other hand organisations go to great effort to articulate their idealised cultures, that is the observable pattern of behaviours that define, distinguish and are most aligned to the ability of the organisation to achieve its mission and realise its vision.

Deliberate tending and reinforcing of idealised organisational culture is the means through which entropy gets counteracted; after all if entropy results from a system being left alone for long enough then the counter-attack to entropy seems to self-evidently be to not leave it alone. Yet, what happens when the organisational culture is left alone and untended for too long, when the landlord is absent or ineffective for long enough to allow a steady wear and tear of the idealised cultural fabric to set in? Can the entropic effect on culture ever be reversed; can the organisation ever achieve self-renewal and correction?

The African National Congress and Its Battle With Cultural Entropy

A useful case study in seeking out an answer to this question and in observing this controversy may lie within our political sector where the nation’s 108-year old governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), is wrestling with what seems to be the results of a cultural entropy that is gaining momentum with every dawn. Following its relatively poor showing in the national polls of 2019 as a result of what some of its own leaders characterised as “a lost decade”, the ANC noted the need and committed itself to a process of organisational self-correction and renewal. With Cyril Ramaphosa at the helm came the hope of a new dawn that infected party faithfuls and beyond with an optimism that self-correction for the ANC and redemption for South Africa, were indeed nigh. Yet, barely a year since that vaunted new dawn the ANC continues to make front page headlines for corruption, mediocrity and ineffectiveness, recently amplified by the behaviour of some of its members and leaders in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. This has drawn some of sharpest criticism and open revolt from the public that the organisation has experienced since the Zuma years recently culminating in that rage and discontent getting tersely summed up on social media in the hashtag, #VoetsekANC.The significance of ANC’s battle against cultural entropy cannot be underestimated. Any battle for the culture of an organisation is tantamount to a battle for such organisation’s life. Studies have shown that the key determinant of organisational longevity does not lie in its technologies, products, policies or even its balance sheet but rather in its cultural and philosophical core. Those businesses that have survived the test of time are often credited with having very strong cultural cores. When that core is threatened then, indeed, the very life of the organisation is threatened.

Cultural Transformation vs Cultural Entropy

To be sure, nature does not leave vacuums; cultural entropy does not result in a cultural vacuum it simply results in a substitute culture taking root, one that does neither aligns nor serves the ideals and aspirations that the organisation has for itself. Cultural entropy is thus not the same thing as cultural transformation; the latter comes about as a result of purposeful action towards supposed improvement, the former comes about as the result of neglect. The tragedy of the ANC’s struggle, then, does not lie in the fact that a new culture is emerging in the place of the old.

The tragedy of ANC’s losing battle with cultural entropy lies in the fact that the increasingly emergent culture, irrespective of which faction is in charge, is one of chaos and disorder that makes it harder and harder for the organisation to live up to its ideals and aspirations as the former one steadily peels away. The weeds of corruption that are breaking through the foundation, the broken windows looking out at the sweeping vistas of the Arms Deal, Life Esidimeni, Marikana, State Capture and so many other past due moral debts to the nation; the falling ceiling that is municipal and state owned enterprise governance - all those signs of entropy and more are driving the tenants away and extending the decades long electoral decline as the very objective function of being a political party - earning political power and dominance - continues to be undermined. This then, characterises a key front in the war for the ANC’s soul; a battle not between opposing factions of the movement but rather the battle to keep entropy out so as to avoid or ameliorate cultural chaos that undermines stated objectives. To be clear, this is not a political statement but rather a statement on how the possibility of demise turns into the inevitability of extinction when an organisation is not capable of withstanding the effect of entropic forces that constantly push up against and test it akin to the waves of the North Sea constantly testing and crashing against the dikes of the Netherlands.

Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin

To its credit, though perhaps of minimal consolation; the movement may have been neglectful but it certainly is not unaware of this state of affairs. In a recent letter by President Cyril Ramaphosa to members of the ANC, one in which he diagnoses the very entropic manifestations that afflict the party, he referenced the 54th ANC national conference which “in reflecting on corruption noted that there is an increase in corruption, factionalism, dishonesty and other negative practices that seriously threaten the goal and support of the ANC. The conference further said that these practices contradict and damage our mission to serve the people and use the country’s resources to achieve development and transformation.” In spite of that awareness, even on the eve of local government elections, a full term after the party lost its governing party status across three metros, the movement persists in behaving in ways that undermine the aspiration of renewal and self- correction and continues to do further damage to any prospects it might have to regain lost confidence in voters; it is as Paul the Apostle once said in his letter to the Romans : “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but that which I hate, that I do.” It is this repeated pattern of behaviour and misalignment between desire and action that has led many to conclude that even though the fat lady has not yet sung, the writing is already on the wall, mene mene tekel upharsin - the force of entropy has prevailed, the ANC is only destined to get worse, not better; powerless to free itself from entropy’s grip on its ability to live up to its founding ideals and break out of the death spiral that causes it to persist in producing results that neither it or the nation they govern want.

Hope in Fresh, Young Blood?

What of the youth though? Might the hope of redemption lie in an up and coming generation of leaders within the ANC that sweep into power, halve the average age in Cabinet and bring about this sorely needed renewal before the great demise? Are the entanglements of the incumbent, older generation of leadership, their closets full of skeletons, just too dilutive of any political will to turn the aspiration of renewal into the action of renewal such that only fresh blood could be the hope? Sadly, no. Just as genetic defects get passed on from one generation to the next so too do the types of cultural defects that are unable to withstand the entropic march. Case in point is the youth politics of the ANC. To this day, since the departure of Julius Malema and the other EFF pioneers, the youth that makes up the ANC from all the respective factions has not been able to define a new ideological basis for the youth league and without such ideological basis, any attempt to reconstitute the youth league is to reconstitute it in the image and character of the mother body lock stock and barrel with the very tendencies that trigger the call for self-correction. The NYDA, is another exhibit; it operates and behaves very much the same as many other organs of the ANC and not too dissimilarly to other SOEs. It is governed by ANC youth. Whatever it is that afflicts the older generations of ANC leadership seems to afflict the younger generation such that there is little obvious hope that this young generation could become the salvation.

Organisational Systems Seldom Self-Correct

The challenge for the ANC, therefore, is no different from the challenge that any organisational system, particularly large and complex ones, has had to face in attempting to win its culture back from entropy and achieve self-renewal. Systems; whether in nature or organizationally seldom self-correct. The human body, as a system, can fight off invading pathogens through built-in immune defences. The human body cannot fight off nor repair genetic defects; it cannot, for instance, stop the biological clock from ticking. Making the self-correction and self-renewal task even harder is the fact that the symbiotic networks of interdependent relationships that maintain the equilibrium that perpetuate problematic tendencies are far too strong.

And so, in spite of thorough diagnoses and analyses of the need for self-correction, ANC remains the prototypical case study of “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The Covid-19 strategy, as well meaning as it was and in spite of the initial wave of admiration that it earned Ramaphosa, was dealt a significant body blow by the prevailing culture of the ANC and how it played itself out in the manner and tone with which Cabinet interacted (or failed to interact) with stakeholders and in the corruption that played itself out in the distribution of various relief measures from local all the way to national level. There is no strategy, therefore, no matter how well informed or defined, that is going to shift the trajectory and descent of the ANC unless it has at its centre, cultural renewal and even that as strategy alone without the political will or cohesion to make it happen is not likely to cause renewal because a lot of what would be required would be for the chickens to vote for Christmas.

Critical Success Factors of Cultural Self-Correction

All is not lost though. Just because systems seldom self-correct it does not mean that they never self-correct. Systems that do achieve self-correction tend to harness the following critical success factors to reversing the effects of cultural entropy:

  • React - Where steps towards self-correction do occur, they typically come about as a result of external stimulus rather than internal epiphany. When confronted with competitive forces and changes in the operating environment that threaten to prevail over the ability of the organisation to maintain its desired trajectory of performance, an organisation that is not overcome by hubris, denialism and complacency or otherwise stunned into inaction due to shock and the lack of imagination; breaks out of inertia, takes evasive action and thus finds its path to self-correction. There is nothing that focuses the collective mind and brings about focus quite like a common enemy thumping a battering ram against the city gates. The challenge is that in the case of cultural entropy there is no thumping at the gates to wake the guards and trigger the alarms. Entropy seeps through the cracks and crevices and does its work slowly and almost imperceptibly; it lulls the collective mind into indifference about the hairline cracks that slowly yet steadily grow into crevices and soon enough the building loses its structural integrity, becomes uninhabitable and stops earning rent for the landlord.
  • Commit to correction and renewal - In response to the rising trend of “practices that contradict and damage the mission of the party”, ANC has called for a process of self-correction and organisational renewal. The call for renewal, whether of the ANC or of an entire organisation or business unit therein, implies that certain behaviours that are contrary to the organisation’s aspirational identity have crept into its fabric and undermine its performance, vitality and sustainability. It is an acknowledgment that if left alone, these habits will grow in strength and resilience and steadily peel away at the organisational facade that is critical to the imperative of winning votes in the case of the ANC or of attracting customers, retaining top-talent and earning market premiums in the case of businesses. The first step is thus to do what the ANC has done - to recognise that entropy has set in, to diagnose its causes and to commit to a process of renewal - as important a first step as this is, it is not sufficient.
  • Political Will - For self-correction to be of any effect there has to be a critical mass of internal energy to initiate and drive it. Quite often what started as a reaction and translated into a commitment to correction and renewal tends to sputter as it fails to find receptive hearts and minds to drive it. In the field of thermodynamics this availability of internal energy to achieve the desired result is referred to as enthalpy, in the political realm it is referred to as political will - while those terms may be most closely associated to the fields of physics and politics, they apply more generally to sectors beyond them - corporate stories abound about how whistleblowers have been ignored while attempting to bring attention to issues of concern in their organisations.
  • Speed of outcomes - In order to counteract the force of such entropic habits, whatever efforts at renewal must generate gains at a faster rate than the rate of entropy; the longer that it takes for the gains to show, the greater the effort and resources required to reverse the direction and slow the pace of the entropic flywheel. This is but one of the factors that may reinforce a fatalistic outlook on the prospects of the ANC self-correcting : while there is virtue in the slow, cautious and calculated approach that has generally seemed to serve President Ramaphosa well, if it is not building up momentum for one massive wrecking ball strike on the emergent cultural paradigm, whatever his best intentions might be, the forces of entropy will simply overwhelm them. Therefore, for every day that outcomes delay, the greater the force that will be required to cause a reversal and, unfortunately, with great force comes great trauma.
  • True North - In its defence, what the ANC has going for it, at least, that many organisations do not is the Freedom Charter and documents such as Through The Eye of the Needle that offer some semblance of where “true north” is for it. Such statements and elaborations of guiding policy and cultural aspiration tend to offer directional orientation for the proposed renewal. Organisations that have to seek out renewal without this “true north” predefined often have their march to renewal delayed by the ideological battles over where “true north” really is. The challenge that the ANC does face, however, is the challenge that all religions and systems of belief more broadly eventually face: hermeneutics. That, too, undermines any prospects that self-renewal will pip entropic-driven demise to the post. This was most apparent during the Zuma years: even as they plundered the state and sold it to the highest bidder, the ruling factions of the ANC claimed to be doing so in the name of the Freedom Charter with radical economic transformation characteristics.  Even the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that claims to be distinct from the ANC in both ideology and policy, nonetheless also claims the Freedom Charter as its foundational basis.
  • Hermeneutical clarity - This hermeneutical challenge can be overcome though. Its antidote often lies in a caliber of leadership that is able to rise above the interpretive fault lines and is trusted, respected and admired enough to be allowed to set the defining interpretation of ideology for that time. Chinese President and leader of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, offers an example of such a leader. In 2017, 5-years after being elected to the posts of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China by the 18th Central Committee of the party, the Central Committee resolved that Xi’s political philosophies, generally referred to as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” would become part of the party’s constitution. Xi’s “Thought” was not a novel philosophy, rather it was a hermeneutical disposition of centuries of Chinese political ideology that had been shaped and interpreted by the likes of Deng Xiaoping, Lenin, Marx and Mao Zedong. This is arguably an approach that former party President, Jacob Zuma, sought to take in seeking to galvanise the party behind the ideology of radical economic transformation; what he lacked was the trust, respect and admiration of a critical mass of his party membership or, at the least, the means to mandate it. Current party President, Cyril Ramaphosa, has either not had the time or been inclined or able to make his own attempt to offer up an organising ideological and cultural framework that the party’s efforts at self-renewal can converge around. Most of his time has seemed to be taken up by managing and averting crisis while maintaining a tenuous grip over power in what is a deeply divided party. This inability by Ramaphosa to overcome the hermeneutical challenge within the party serves as a further stumbling block to any hopes that self-renewal may be possible.

Injecting New Cultural DNA

Another driver of self-correction is the injection of new cultural DNA through conquest or internal revolt. A new landlord takes over with a new vision for the building, some cash to spare on its renovations and all of a sudden its fortunes turn around. The black sheep of the family - the illegitimate child who was raised in the rural village by the grandparents unexpectedly shows up at the reading of the will and turns out to the be the legitimate heir to the family estate. With a very different outlook on life she zigs where everyone else would have zagged taking the family fortunes in an entirely different direction. The challenge for the ANC is that none of the other political parties on the left of the political spectrum are large enough and meaningfully differentiated in culture from it such that their genetic code would not be immediately overwhelmed by the ANC hegemony were a merger to be fashioned. A merger with the Democratic Alliance (DA) could offer greater prospects of cultural dilution but the plausibility thereof is near nought.

Internally, for all the talk of ANC being a broad church, though its cadres may subscribe to different ideological philosophies, those differences tend to be abandoned at the altar of mammon where their interests align such that none of them, from whatever faction, are so distinctly differentiated to the prevailing cultural paradigm. Therefore, even if a palace coup was to be successfully engineered by one of the factions, there is very little likelihood that there would be much cultural differentiation within that faction to the currently dominant faction. The fact that EFF and ANC are both implicated in the VBS scandal underscore   this convergence around mammon in spite of faction or brand name.

The ANC Does Not Hold a Monopoly on Cultural Entropy

Of course, the ANC does not hold a monopoly on the phenomenon of cultural entropy borne of a neglectful attitude towards maintaining the upkeep of its idealised culture. it is a function of the broader political culture of South Africa, especially insofar as it relates to parties that are built in the image of the ANC or the result of breakaways from it. They all draw from the same cadre pool and have the same organisational structures and cultures that inevitably replicate the defects of the ANC, if not now certainly later. Look, for instance, at the newest of such parties, African Transformation Movement (ATM), headlined by prominent former ANC leaders such as Mzwanele Mannyi and apparently fashioned, in part, by ANC Secretary General, Ace Magashule - they indeed speak a different policy language but they take a similar cultural and structural form to the ANC and draw from the same cadre pool without any specific, notable capabilities to mitigate against the very tendencies that become the inevitable result of such cultural and structural configurations.

On the other side of the spectrum the Democratic Alliance has also struggled, of late, with a tendency of producing results that no one within it wants.  Helen Zille’s Twitter habit became such a risk to the party that it eventually led to her being hauled before the party’s disciplinary committee - full marks for acknowledging, reacting and committing to correction and renewal. Soon enough though, Zille was brought back from the periphery and voted in as the Federal Council Chairperson where she was soon back on Twitter making comments that led some of her fellow comrades to report her to the disciplinary committee. Helen Zille is the external manifestation of a deeper, tectonic cultural dynamic in the DA and to the extent that it recycled a clearly unreformed Zille back into the commanding heights of the party suggests that the culture has not much changed. Again, this is not a political statement as much as it is an observation of how a culture that the party itself has identified as problematic persists in undermining its reform efforts in a manner that is counter-productive to its own aspirations at reversing electoral performance decline. Even the church has not avoided the onset of cultural entropy and its perpetuation of a resultant pattern of results that are inconsistent with its idealised culture.

For a long time, for instance, the Catholic church has wrestled with the impact that the persistent incidence and legacy of sexual abuse by its clergy has had on its reputation and perhaps more significantly the integrity of its witness. It was Pope John Paul II who in 2001 issued an apology, calling sexual abuse within the Church, “aprofound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ”. The stories of abuse only really began receiving public attention in the late 1980s but narrated stories of abuses that had been going on for decades before that and been covered up or wilfully ignored. Even as the lamentations grew louder the Church failed to react or acknowledge the phenomenon and as such the trend of abuse continued. It was only in 2019 when Pope Francis broke through the inertia and rose above the hermeneutical confusion and debate around the issue and promulgated the Vos estis lux mundi, which established new procedural norms to combat sexual abuse and ensure that bishops and religious superiors were held accountable for their actions. In its Preamble the Pope affirmed that : “The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful. In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church … Therefore, it is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.”

Amongst the new norms was the abolishment of a longstanding secrecy policy that the Church had applied to sexual abuse accusations against clerics which critics said had often shielded priests from criminal punishment by the secular authorities. In so doing Pope Francis showed a political will that had been otherwise absent from his predecessors to not only speak about the problem but to do something about it as well - a function, perhaps, of the very unorthodox school of thought that he seemed to come from that, on the one hand drew the ire of theological conservatives but on the other, made him the very fresh blood that the Church needed to break itself free of the deathly grip of entropy. The results are yet to be fully seen. Corporate South Africa is also not immune from these phenomena. Companies, for instance, repeatedly speak about their commitments to transformation, they invest significant amounts of money towards their efforts in that regard and make transformation targets explicit parts of managers’ performance scorecards; yet, year after year the BEE Commissioner laments the slow progress of transformation in those very corporates - conduct a poll within them though on how many people are opposed to transformation and dissent is barely audible, yet track their results longitudinally and a picture emerges of a circular road to hell paved with good intentions.

The Dead Cannot Renew

Perhaps it is worth noting, in conclusion, that everything and everyone succumbs to some form of entropy and dies. Everyone dies. Ngoyi is dead. Tambo is dead. Sisulu is dead. Gxowa is dead. Mandela is dead. Madikizela-Mandela is dead. Kathradais dead. The ANC in its idealised form as a respected liberation movement and supposed working class vanguard - is dying if not already dead and, for better or worse, its founders and subsequent leaders and cadres did not instill within it the critical, necessary genetic material to ensure that the idealised form lives forever. It is worth reflecting, as this happens, on whether it is even worth keeping alive any more. Indeed, the mission for which it was founded remains valid and legitimate, the national democratic revolution remains a valid cause that cannot be further undermined or delayed, the only issue is it cannot be delivered by a dead organisation. Similarly, whether it is the ANC or any other organisation, unless the battle against cultural entropy is taken up with deliberate and purposeful action, death of the best conceptions of itself is inevitable.

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