…Too often in…

…Too often in organizational life, people begin analyzing problems by personalizing them (“If only Joe was a leader…”) or attributing the situation to interpersonal conflict (“Sally and Bill don’t collaborate very well because their work styles are so at odds”). This tendency often obscures a deeper; more systemic (and perhaps more threatening) understanding of the situation. For example, “Sally and Bill represent conflicting perspectives on the tough strategic trade-offs that need to be made in our harsh economic climate, and each is protecting the functions and jobs of their own people. The conflict is structural, not personal, even if it’s taken on a personal tone.” To counteract the personalization of problems, start with diagnosing and acting on the system (“moving outside in”) and then do the same for the self (“moving inside out”).

Heifetz, The practice of adaptive leadership, p. 8

Fritjof Capra’s Dual Nature of Organizational Structure

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Fritjof Capra, in The Hidden Connections, poses a dual nature of business organization. (In the term “business” I am including any group of people that constitute a workplace both for profit and not for profit companies.)

Businesses are both 1) social institutions designed for specific purposes (such as making money, managing distributions of political power, transmitting knowledge, or spreading religious faith, and 2) communities of people who interact with each other, build relationships, help each other, and make their daily activities meaningful at a personal level.

Peter Senge (in Capra) characterizes one as a “machine for making money” and the other as a “living being.”

The first type of organization is mechanistic. It comes from classical management theories of the early twentieth century. All the thinking is done by the managers and designers, leaving all the doing to the employees (Taylor, in Capra). A fast food chain is a perfect example of the first type of organization. It doesn’t matter who is hired, they fulfill the same role each time. It is characterized by formal structures–clear lines of communication, coordination, and control. This approach has been successful in increasing efficiency and productivity, but workers in these types of organizations feel animosity and resentment to the organization.

At the same time, there exists the second type of organization in any business–the informal living organization comprised of human beings. This is a fluid and fluctuating network of communication. This is where the organization’s flexibility, creativity, and learning capability reside. Skills are exchanged; tacit knowledge, “common sense”, and meaning are generated. When new people join or leave the organization, the informal network changes or breaks down and restructures itself. Smart managers recognize that there is an interplay between the organization’s formal structures and its informal living networks. Typically, they will allow the formal structures handle the routine work while relying on the informal structures to handle work that doesn’t fit within the routines.

Interesting Quotes:

“People [in organizations] do not resist change; they resist having change imposed on them.”

“If organizations were truly living communities, buying and selling them would be the equivalent of slavery, and subjecting the lives of their members to predetermined goals would be seen as dehumanizing.”

“A machine can be controlled; a living system . . . can only be disturbed. Working wtih the processes inherent in living systems means that we do not need to spend a lot of energy to move an organization. There is no need to push, pull, or bully it to make it change. For or energy are not the issue; the issue is meaning.”

“…intelligent, alert people rarely carry out instructions exactly to the letter.”

On the profound conflict between biological time and computer time:

“People feel that they have hardly any time for quiet reflection, and since reflective consciousness is one of the defining characteristics of human nature, the results are profoundly dehumanizing.”

“What to do with that spare time [created through technology and increased efficiency] becomes a question of values. It can be distributed among the individuals in the organization–thus creating time for them to reflect, organize themselves, network, and gather for informal conversations–or the time can be extracted from the organization and turned into profits for its top executives and shareholder by making people work more and thus increasing the company’s productivity.”

Is the belief in efficiency getting in our way?

In reading the book “Walk Out, Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now“, I am reconsidering the idea of efficiency and how it might be a hindrance to our ultimate success in organizations and communities.Author Wheatley talks of an unreachable “optimal state” and how this makes efficiency elusive. She advocates instead for a resiliency model. Such a system, “…has the capacity to rebound from disturbance…by increasing its diversity and redundancy, by forgoing growth and speed in favor of sustainability, and by engaging in a wide range of small local actions that connect to one another.” A resilient agricultural system might be local so as not to rely on a single element like supply of oil to transport food grown far away, or it might practice a labor intensive form of agriculture like permaculture. A resilient community might use local herbs to treat disease rather than relying on access to pharmaceutical drugs that are made far away and are in short supply.

Similarly, a resilient business might embrace the “local” concept by cultivating leadership and a diverse skill set in its employees–and spread out decision making authority beyond its executive team so as not to rely on the “oil” to spread leadership from the executives to the other workers. It would consider the strengths of its workforce, and consider paths toward its purpose utilizing these skill sets. It would empower its employees to find ways to get their work done without relying too heavily on organizational policy or other departments.

In contrast, efficiency models try to get the most done in the least amount of time. Wheatley says, “The more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish that systems’ resilience. A drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.” An efficient organization tries to eliminate redundancy and streamline decision-making and processes through specialization and hierarchy.

In order for an organization to value resiliency over efficiency, there would need to be a shared understanding about the illusion of the optimal state. The optimal state does not exist!

When I am planning a project, I try to build in extra cushions of time to make up for the unexpected setbacks that are, in fact, to be expected. As the author said, “Life always bursts through the door–why not expect it?” When I try to explain my cushions in the project plan to someone who wants to or needs to believe in the idea of the optimal state, they want to decrease these cushions and get the project done faster and for less money. If I remove the cushions, then the project ultimately comes in behind schedule. The response then is that we need to work harder, do more, and next time make sure that nothing unexpected happens or gets in the way. Inevitably, something happens again the next time–someone on our team gets sick, our outside vendor is behind schedule, or a computer breaks, and the cycle continues. This leads to discouragement when people work harder and harder, but still see that they are not meeting the goals.

The optimal state illusion is embedded in our political systems, our agriculture systems, and our organizations. Is the drive toward greater and greater efficiency getting in the way in our organizations? How do we break out of this cycle and come to a shared understanding about the illusion of an optimal state so we can work towards resiliency?