Institutional structures can be analogized to anatomy

Thinking about particular organizations as instances of a universal institutional structure is a powerful framework for examining institutional structures. Regardless of your metaphysical stance^1, you could think of different organizations as particular instantiations of a Platonic institutional structure in the same way that you can think of each of us as a particular instantiation of the universal idea of ‘human.’ Sequoia, First Round, and A16Z are all particular VC firms and MIT, Stanford, and Harvard are all particular Universities.

“Duh,” you might think. I’m explicitly drawing attention to this idea because it enables us to talk about important shared aspects of an institutional structure separately from the (just as important) design decisions and experiments that will vary based on taste and context. This mode of thinking is especially important for a new institutional structure. Otherwise it would be like an alien species trying to grasp the concept of humans by studying a single baby. They would conclude rightly that humans were stupid and helpless^2, incapable of abstract thought and unable to lift our heads.

Of course, this way of thinking could stray dangerously close to asserting “real X has never been tried!” after every instantiation of an idea has failed. There may not even be a clear line — the startup world has shown repeatedly that failed ideas can be successful with a different set of particular details around the same universal idea.^3 While it might be impossible to know for sure, the particular/universal distinction at least opens the door to asking whether a failure was due to the institutional model itself or the particular design choices in the instantiation.

In reality, there’s no clean separation between aspects that are core to the institutional structure and those that are incidental to specific organizations. To deal with this nebulosity, I find it informative to analogize different aspects of an organization to human anatomy. In the same way that different parts of anatomy vary more or less between two people various parts of an institutional structure will vary between organizations.

  • Skeleton - the things that are extremely solid and fairly standardized between different instantiations of an institution.
  • Muscles - the features that every instantiation of an institutional structure will have but will be emphasized to different degrees based on the institution’s very specific role - could grow or atrophy over time.
  • Skin - the things that can vary between instantiations of the idea but once instantiated are fairly locked in.
  • Clothes- The possibilities to play around with, that can be changed reasonably easily.

It’s especially important to distinguish between skin and clothes. People often confuse the two and lump both under “oh we’ll change it later.” Assuming you can change skin later is leads to seemingly inconsequential early organizational decisions becoming crystalized in culture and strongly affecting an organization’s trajectory.

^1: (Especially Medieval) stances on metaphysics can be roughly divided into realists, who argue that there are actually universals and particulars, and nominalists, who argue that there are just particulars.
^2: Or at least more so than normal
^3:<sidenote>See Webvan -> Instacart, Armadillo Aerospace -> SpaceX, etc.

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