Your Organization is Alive

Suppose you meet someone at a local business networking event.  In the course of the conversation, she asks you “how do you describe the operations of your business?” In your response you employ the image of a machine.  You explain to her that your business runs like a “well oiled machine” most of the time, but right now you have some “parts” missing.   

Do you realize you may be limiting your business success without even being aware that you are doing it?  

It’s in the words. The words we use to describe what we are doing can sometimes constrict our understanding as much or more than they help us to explain what we mean.  

Metaphor of the Machine

In this example, the workings of the organization are compared to the workings of a machine.  The machine metaphor is easy to comprehend (especially for males for whom interest in machines is a cultural expectation).  It is also convenient because this image is frequently used.  

Our current fascination with machines has its origin in the Industrial Revolution.  The human economy was transformed during this period as businesses emerged that were based on new technologies that drew people off the farms and into the cities.  Machines could do heavy, repetitive work faster and more precisely than humans.  As the technology progressed, machines were designed that could also mimic and sometimes even surpass the handiwork of artisans.  We wondered, “Is there a limit to what machines can do?”  

Machines had some attractive qualities.  In addition to the volume of work that could be accomplished, machines seemed predictable.  We could control the operations and even learn to predict under what conditions they would operate most effectively and under what conditions they might break down.   

It seemed natural to wonder if organizations could be managed in the same way.  By applying scientific rigor, we believed, we could increase the effectiveness of the workplace in much the same way as we improved on the machine. We looked for the conditions that would increase productivity and tried to identify what would cause the worker to break down.  If we could understand and control these factors we would have the most efficient workplace.  The entire organization was conceptualized as a machine and the employees were the parts. Both management theory and psychological investigations in the workplace (as well as much of the scientific application of psychology) used the machine metaphor to guide our understanding of how to create an effective organization. 

Sometimes the words we use to describe events and processes are so effective that we forget that they are only metaphors.  In a quote (paraphrased) attributed to Henry Ford, “Why is it that every time I need a pair of hands, I have to get a whole man?” this tendency is revealed. 

Alternative Business

Herein lays the danger.  Any metaphor not only illuminates but also obfuscates. Is there an alternative way to do business?

Organizations are not machines, they are living systems. 

The difference between mechanical and living is more than a difference in complexity, as is often assumed.  It is a qualitative difference.  Machines are subject to control and direction by the operator.  You cannot direct a living system, you can only disturb it

By that I mean that humans and other living organisms are not controlled only by external forces.  There are independent internal events (like hunger or emotion) which also influence the outcome.  And there is choice!  

To illustrate, imagine saying hello to the receptionist at a busy office.  She might smile pleasantly and return your greeting (the hoped – for response).  She could also continue what she is doing and ignore your interruption.  She might even respond in an angry or defensive tone of voice.  The response of the machine is predictable and programmable; the reaction of the human is not.   

There are important implications for every organization in this realization.  Command and control strategies have a limited usefulness when dealing with the workforce.  Sometimes a direct command or an effort to establish control will have the results that are expected, while at other times the response will be resistance.  

For example, when top management agrees to implement a change for the company, the failure rates for making the change effectively and in a timely manner are astronomical.  Or it may succeed initially, only to have unforeseen consequences at a later time.  Humans are responding to the demands made by management, to demands in other areas of their lives, and to their internal perceptions about how they are being treated or about how important the change initiative is to their life.  And then they make a choice about how to respond. 

This is beyond the capacity of even the most complex machine. But it is the domain of every employee, even the least educated or least sophisticated.  Command and control strategies are ideal for handling machines.  They are not effective with people. Period. It is not a matter of needing better command and control.  Living systems will not be controlled. 

Where to Begin 

To be truly effective with the human resources of your organization, we must change the approach to working with living beings.  A workforce can be guided but it cannot be effectively controlled.  It can be encouraged to learn, but it cannot be subjugated.   

This is why the Gallup studies regarding effective managers reveal that the best results come from those who draw out the strengths of their workforce and provide each person with what they need to do a good job.   

It is why the Day Group found that among the six key qualities of leadership, the commanding style was the least effective and often hurt the bottom line, while other styles of visionary, coaching, affiliative, and democratic leadership were associated with improved results. 

It is why “learning organizations,” those organizations which foster continued growth and development of the workforce and establish the environment for creativity at all levels, are among the most profitable year in and year out.   

It is why those companies that have survived and are thriving after 100 years have fostered both a strong sense of community and a collective identity based on common values.  This is balanced by a tolerance for new individuals and new ideas and the ability to adapt to the ever changing landscape of modern business. 

In other words, business that honors the uniqueness of life among it human resources have consistently better results and are more profitable.  This should not be surprising.  When we recognize things as they really are, and respond to them appropriately, we get better results.