In his excellent analysis of How Rome Fell
, historian Adrian Goldsworthy makes some interesting observations about how we tend to disconnect horizontally from anyone or anything outside of our group. We lose our sense of place and this makes any change so much harder. People resist change when they can't see the bigger picture and why it is necessary. The challenge is to cross our self-imposed boundaries into a world not of our own making and connect to the outside both personally and organizationally.
It is only human nature to lose sight of the wider issues and focus on immediate concerns and personal aims. In the Late Roman Empire this was so often about personal survival and advancement – the latter bringing wealth and influence, which helped to increase security in some ways, but also rendered the individual more prominent and thus a greater target to others. Some officials enjoyed highly successful careers through engineering the destruction of colleagues. Performing a job well was only a secondary concern…. The game was about personal success and this often had little connection to the wider needs of the empire.
All human institutions, from countries to businesses, risk creating a similarly short-sighted and selfish culture. It is easier to avoid in the early stages of expansion and growth. Then the sense of purpose is likely to be clearer, and the difficulties or competition involved have a more direct and obvious impact. Success produces growth and, in time, creates institutions so large that they are cushioned from mistakes and inefficiency. The united Roman Empire never faced a competitor capable of destroying it. These days, countries and government departments do not easily collapse – and Western states do not face enemies likely to overthrow them by military force. In the business world the very largest corporations almost never face competitors that are truly their equal. Competition within the commercial market at any level is obviously rarely carried out on entirely equal terms.
In most cases it takes a long time for serious problems or errors to be exposed. It is usually even harder to judge accurately the real competence of individuals and, in particular, their contribution to the overall purpose….For the vast majority of people, their work is less open to the public gaze, but is similar in that the real consequences of what they do are not obvious. Comparatively few people these days actually make or even sell something, or work in a profession where at least some of the goals are obvious. A doctor or a nurse knows if their patient recovers. A hospital manager operates at a completely different level, dealing with numbers and budgets and not individual patients. Such distance is inevitable and in many walks of life the wider goals are even less clear.
And this on ever expanding bureaucracy:
By their nature bureaucracies tend to grow. This was true in the Roman Empire, let alone with the massively larger government agencies of modern countries. Individuals within a department obviously have to focus on a particular task. It is only natural to believe that with more people they could deal with this more effectively. The larger they grow, then the more distant most members will be from the reality of the overall function of the department, and they will become even more removed in their way of thought to anyone outside. This is not inevitably a bad thing, but it does mean that they will continue to expand unless restrained, since their problem or concern is the only one they will see.