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Quote about institutions from The Great Influenza (John M Barry)

Institutions are a strange mix of the mass and the individual. They abstract. They behave according to a set of rules that substitute both for individual judgements and for the emotional responses that occur whenever individuals interact. The act of creating an institution dehumanizes it, creates an arbirtrary barrier between individuals.

Yet institutions are human as well. They reflect the cumulative personalities of those within them, especially their leadership. They tend, unfortunately, to mirror less admirable human traits, developing and protecting self-interest and even ambition. Institutions almost never sacrifice. Since they live by rules, they lack spontaneity. They try to order chaos not in the way an artist or scientist does, through a defining vision that creates structure and discipline but by closing off and isolating themselves from that which does not fit. They become bereaucratic.

The best institutions avoid the worst aspects of bureaucracy in two ways. Some are not really institutions at all. They are simply a loose confederation of individuals, each of whom remains largely a free agent whose achievements are independent of the institution but who also shares and benefits from association with others. In these cases the institution simply provides an infrastructure that supports the indivual, allowing him or her to flourish so that the whole often exceeds the sum of the parts. Other institutions avoid the worst elements of bureaucracy by concentrating on a clearly defined purposes. Their rules have little to do with such procedural issues as a chain of command; instead rules focus on how to achieve a particular result, in effect offering guidance based on experience. This kind of institution even at its best can still stultify creativity, but such institutions can execute, can do a routine thing efficiently. They resemble professionals tryind to do their jobs and duty; they accomplish their tasks.


The Great Influenza, Chapter 26 John M Barry

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