Locking Down the Prisoners: Control, Conflict and Compliance for Organizations

Newgate Prison Inmates

The most important thing to learn about management and governance is knowing when and how to manage or govern and more importantly, when not to.

The story is told about a very new and modern penal facility, the very epitome of security and control. Each night, precisely at 11:00 PM, the televisions were shut off and the inmates were herded into their cells for lights out. Since the inmates tended to dislike their enforced bedtime, fights would ensue during the lockdown and throughout the night when the cells needed to be opened (both for purposes of head counts and to respond to the inevitable conflicts caused by locking people in close quarters). If the problems were pervasive enough, an entire housing unit might be punished by – wait for it – being confined to their cells (perpetuating the cycle).

Management of the facility was at a loss on what to do. The conflict was causing disruption in the day-to-day activities. This disruption further exacerbated tensions. The fights led to injuries to both staff and inmates, raising costs and risk of civil litigation, as well as causing staffing problems.

The answer was simple – stop the lockdowns. When the policy was reviewed objectively, it was obvious that enforcement was yielding no benefits to offset the many costs. In fact, stopping enforcement actually increased security by reducing tensions and causing the night owls to sleep in during the day. In a real-life zen moment, it was realized that letting go of the illusion of control provided real control (or at least something closer to it).

Most organizations could benefit from a similar epiphany.

This is not to suggest that process, management, and governance are unnecessary, far from it. Instead, it’s important that the system by which things are run is…systemic. As Tom Graves likes to say, “…things work better when they work together, on purpose”. Intentional design applies to social systems, just as it applies to software systems. Ad hoc evolution, by way of disjointed decisions unencumbered with any coherence, lead to accidental structures. Entropy emerges.

This can be seen in a tweet from Charles T. Betz:

Or, as Gary Hamel tweeted:

The alternative is to do as Yves Morieux stated in his TED talk: “We need to create organizations in which it becomes individually useful for people to cooperate.” This involves a ruthless attention to cause and effect. This involves creating environments where unnecessary friction is removed and necessary friction is understood to be necessary by all involved. It’s a lot easier to get compliance when it’s easier to comply and a lot easier to get conflict when you provoke it.


13 thoughts on “Locking Down the Prisoners: Control, Conflict and Compliance for Organizations

  1. To relentlessly create organizations that work together on purpose requires a lot effort from both management and those doing the work. A single-minded focus on a specific goal is a requirement that can only occur for a period of time before size or multiple goals start to pull at the fabric of the organization.


    • There’s a scene from the movie “Zulu Dawn” that illustrates this perfectly. The British troops are expending ammunition at a prodigious rate trying to hold back the Impis and are running out. The supply sergeant in charge of the ammunition wagon is acting as a bottleneck, ensuring that the proper requisitions are in place before parceling out the cartridges in suitably small amounts – right up until the point the camp is overrun and someone sticks an assegai in him (bit ungrateful, really, given his contribution to the Zulu cause).

      Any organization of any real size will have specializations that have individual goals that should be complementary to the organization’s focus. These may have conflicting aspects – think audit, accounting, InfoSec, etc., and that’s expected and desirable (you don’t want to give the innovators the credit card without any oversight).

      What’s critical, IMO, is deliberate holistic evaluation to make sure that the net result, friction and all, advances the organization’s aims. You don’t want the vicious circle from Charles’ tweet where a tangled web of ill-considered decisions is bogging everything down and you certainly don’t want the situation where individual incentives promote corporate arson. I think the philosophy is simple enough but the execution is made difficult because it’s a continuous process when done right.


      • I think that is often the key issue – the answers to the core questions of “What is our purpose?” or “What are we trying to accomplish?” aren’t sufficiently clear that they allow people to actually measure success against them.


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Full Stack Enterprises (Who Needs Architects?) | Form Follows Function

  3. Pingback: Changing Organizations Without Changing People | Form Follows Function

  4. Pingback: Volkswagen and the Cost of Culture | Form Follows Function

  5. Pingback: The Hidden Cost of Cheap – UX and Internal Applications | Form Follows Function

  6. Pingback: Organizations as Systems – “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown” | Form Follows Function

  7. Pingback: Leadership Patterns and Anti-Patterns – The Growler | Form Follows Function

  8. Pingback: Regulating Software Development | Form Follows Function

  9. Pingback: You can’t always get what you want… | Form Follows Function

  10. Pingback: Management, Simple and Wrong – Semantics, Systems, and Self-Correction | Form Follows Function

  11. Pingback: Organizations as Systems – Kurosawa, Clausewitz, and Chess | Form Follows Function

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.