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Thinking about thinking: Iron law of bureaucracy and the Shirky principle


Max explores the way we think. This week (Issue 11) is very provoking for every government department and volunteer organisation.


Biases and illogical behaviour can be tested and observed in individuals. Due to being made up of many individuals with biases, they also show up in groups and organisations. Often in very interesting and counter intuitive ways.


Many of us have been frustrated with bureaucracy. There are some laws around organisations that explain why large organisations may be the way they are and understanding these may help us to create organisations that avoid these traps. We have already explored one of these biases in this series when we looked at the Peters principal.


Jerry Pournell (1933-2017) notable as being one of the first bloggers, coined a number of laws. His most famous is Pournelle’s iron law of bureaucracy which states that “in any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”


He later rewrote this law using 132 words and the longer version didn’t catch on. He felt there are two types of people within organisations. Those who are devoted to its goals, like classroom teachers in a school, engineers at production companies, ratepayers in a council and fundraisers or volunteers at charity organisations. Secondly there are those dedicated to the organisation itself. The managers, unions and officials. His law states that in every case the second group will gain control of the organisation. They will control the promotions and write the rules.


Charles Stross summarised the rule as “the iron law of bureaucracy states that for all organisations, most of their activity will be devoted to the perpetuation of the organisation, not to the pursuit of its ostensible objective.” Stross felt that the pursuit of the perpetuation of the organisation was important and that without this effort many important organisations would fail.


Clay Shirky coined the Shirky Principle which is similar but different. He stated that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”


He felt that as no one wants to be made redundant, organisations will always try to continue. The mechanics, which is the solution to cars that require repairs, will not want to provide cars which don’t need replacing. The healthcare company providing drugs to help with an illness will not want the illness cured. Taking this to its logical conclusion, organisations to stop climate change will not want an end to climate change.


“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” ― Upton Sinclair


When you combine the Shirky principle and the Iron law of Bureaucracy you end up with self perpetuating organisations run by people who no longer care about the purpose of the organisation. However a principle is not a universal law rather it indicates a propensity. The shirky principle tells us that without intervention things will tend in this direction. Organisations can be aware of these factors and guard themselves against them.

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