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The Autistic Organization

Earlier this month, Amy and I took True North's Mastering Projects Workshop to Europe. One class, held at the London Chamber of Commerce facility, was booked into a training room next to a room where PRINCE2 certification training was happening. Amy, poking around before we started, came into our room to announce their presence, commenting that their sign said "SPOCE-Successful Projects Operating In Controlled Environments".

"Interesting," I noted, "we're doing a workshop focused upon creating successful projects in uncontrollable environments." We checked with the participants after they arrived to see if we had the right focus, and each said that they worked in an apparently uncontrollable environment. What possible utility, I wondered, would a workshop limiting creating successful projects to controlled environments have in the real world?

The two workshops couldn't have been more different. In theirs, people arrived in suits and ties. No strange noises slipped out into the hall. They started and stopped on time. The Mastering Projects Workshop didn't stay in the assigned room. Exercises slipped out into the lobby and beyond. Some arrived in suits the first day, but not after. Strange noises permeated. We never once finished on time.

The last day, a few bleary-eyed students emerged from the PRINCE2 workshop, smelling as if they'd just survived a certification test, to find half the MPW group standing in a circle in the elevator lobby, with their backs to a table covered with strangely arranged little rubber animals and packets of tea. "We wanted to be in your workshop," one of them said as she waited for the 'lift,' "It looks like more fun."

More than more fun. Several of the MPW participants had survived PRINCE2 certification. They said MPW was more useful.

But not more useful for creating controlled environments. Not more useful for ensuring consistency.

Near the end of our stay, we dined with a couple who have the privilege of being the parents of an Autistic son. They described his development (he's now six), and their development as his parents. I was struck by the similarities between the process-driven obsession with controlling environments and the common Autistic behavior pattern of closely controlling environments. The Autistic establish strict routines. They act out should these rituals be disrupted. They also exhibit great difficulty in establishing and maintaining relationships with others. They often become experts on some subject, able to endlessly recite arcane details about dinosaurs, celestial mechanics, or, somewhat commonly, mathematics.

As Temple Grandin, an autistic adult who is also a college professor and prolific author, points out in her books, the autistic seem to process serially, unable to perceive patterns and relationships. Memory for them is a replaying, as if working with a video tape. There is, she points out, no concept of "cow," just a specific cow.

We found in our MPW participants, a deep longing for relationships in environments which seemed to deny their presence and importance. There were no real barriers to creating deeper relationships, but the opportunities didn't seem to present themselves. After a few years of out-sourcing, many of the long-standing relationships had been disrupted. One participant reported privately that he was in charge of a project to exchange his department's people interfacing with client departments with a generic phone bank. He acknowledged that the phone bank would be more mathematically efficient, but fussed that this efficiency might be beside the point, since the client departments would have little relationship with the people answering the phones, and the relationships seemed to resolve more difficulties that the reps' technical skill did. Quite a dilemma.

As we've managed (pun intended) to make our organizations more mathematically efficient, and focus ever more upon quarterly bottom line results, our organizations have started to behave as if they were autistic. Unable to engage in relationship. Very expert, savant-like in their particular speciality, and nearly illiterate in everything else. Diversity of thought and practice gets discouraged in favor of once meaningful, but increasingly meaningless rituals. Controlling the environment becomes a chief concern.

Of course the environment cannot be controlled. Though the strict engagement in ritual might appear to be control, it fools no one, really. I'm not naive enough (damn!) to believe that it's my job, or anyone's, really, to reform these organizations. I'm just noting the pattern, which the autistic organization, thanks to their obsessive focus upon process, cannot see.

And I'm again wondering how I cope with this humbling acknowledgement. What can it teach me? How can I, not terribly ritualistic, engage in a fully human manner in an environment which acknowledges little of my basic human capabilities? Perhaps my friends, who found themselves parents of an uncontrollable environment, have some clues.

They've looked at the present state of the art and found it wanting, and are learning from their interactions with their lovely son. I think our autistic organizations are lovely sons, and we can learn a lot in our unacknowledged relationship with them. Their rituals are sacrosanct, but not unchangeable. Their perspective is golden, even if it's frustrating. We needn't buy into their behavior and world view to understand and learn from it.

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