The Faustian Pact

by Philip Boxer

North-South dominance works when the environment can be assumed to be symmetrical to North’s assumptions about it. As the variety of actual demands on the organization increase, making this assumption increasingly less valid, it is useful to distinguish the faustian pact. This pact arises when the individuals at the ‘Easterly’ edge of the organization present what they are doing as if they are complying with North-South strictures in order to cut themselves some slack within which to do what is actually needed East-West (and perhaps also to protect their personal stake in the way they do their jobs).

This can create a dangerous collusion which ends up insulating the North from the increasing complexity of demands the East is actually responding to because individuals at the ‘Easterly’ edge are doing it within informal systems ‘under the radar’, for example through horizontal barter between budgets,  calling in personal favors or just working beyond the call of duty because they care to much about what they are doing.  As a result, the Faustian pact delays the moment when the North learns from what is actually going on until presented with catastrophic breakdown of its North-South dominance. (I wrote about the effects of this delay under the heading of ‘facing facts: what’s the good of change’ within the context of the UK’s National Health Service, where doctors often find themselves having to ‘play the system’ in order to deliver appropriate care to their patients).

East-West dominance requires horizontally networked forms of organization that can hold ‘the edge’ accountable for the way it uses the resources to the South of the supporting organization, based on the way West’s know-how is able to use the resources to the South to respond to the particular demands arising in the East – albeit still within the constraints imposed from the North. This contrasts with the hierarchical forms of control associated with North-South dominance in which what happens East-West is determined by North-South’s models.

What is at stake in East-West dominance is the performativity of what is done in relation to the different asymmetric demands emerging at the edge within customers’ contexts-of-use. This replaces the North-South dominant focus on the performance of what is done against centrally (symmetrically) defined criteria. It is not that hierarchy isn’t still necessary, but that it has to be shaped by each variation in a customer’s pragmatics-of-use rather than defined universally in terms of averages. That’s where asymmetric design is needed.

Leave a Reply

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