Rethinking the way we run our organisations
Maybe I'm just lazy or shallow but I always switch off to things that appear complicated or difficulty.... my knee jerk reaction being to see it a sign that we haven't yet got to the heart of the matter, to root causes. I think that not getting to the nitty-gritty of an issue beckons faulty assumptions, and it's those erroneous assumptions that usually cause all the difficulty and stress.
There are few human endeavours that epitomise this confusion more than the management and leadership of our organisations. If the stress and failure rates are not evidence enough, then next time you visit your local bookshop try standing a few steps back from the management section and gaze across the range of books - I'm sure you'll get a feel for what I'm talking about. This is an attempt to look at management practice and the way we build our organisations from a different perspective.
I feel sure that much of the difficulty with management and leadership practice comes from trying to force fit and apply physical and economic principles to a living system - where these principles simply don't apply. For sure, we can manage (force) results in the short term through motivation (manipulation) but there's always a negative longer term price to pay. Leaders who seem to be get it right are those that see organizations not as some physical or economic entity but as a human one - a 'living thing'.
Living systems have their own laws, and so with this change of perspective we can get rid of the complexity that arises from using ineffective approaches and replace them with simple 'living system' principles that work. Sustained success in a living system is not something that can be managed directly but is an effect of being healthy - of having the right conditions to thrive. So what do 'living systems' need? Three things:
Motivation is never something that can be force fed or switched on by another, but every living thing has the innate desire to pursue that which it finds meaningful and fulfilling. Put another way, interest follows desire and desire comes from within.
For a living system to function as a whole it needs the means to come together to discover what it is that's meaningful, that's worth pursuing, that we can stand for. This is never something that can be brought in from outside, it has to be home grown....people support their own creations not those of others.... and it's the process of discovery, not the thing itself, that makes it meaningful. Instead of the organisations 'raison d'etre' being created on high and set in stone we need to open-source it and make it a perpetual work in progress.
Giving everyone an equal voice and equal opportunity to argue, test, augment and bring their own personal interpretation to the organisation's manifesto not only builds unity and common purpose, but also gives everyone the ability to find their own personal meaning and opportunities for growth and fulfillment within the larger context.  This is surprisingly simple and easy to do, and made all the more so by the new social software tools.
Living systems thrive on energy and this energy is the flow of ideas and inspiration - the life blood of any organisation. As scientists tell us, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it just 'is'. We can't do anything to make energy flow - it does that itself. What we need 'do' is get out of the way...remove the barriers...take away the systems, the doors and policies that cause the friction. Energy flows stronger the less resistance there is and flows richer the more diverse the connections.
Opening up the connections to a living system's larger environment is to open to the energy and sustenance of the whole. In life, whatever is separated inevitably withers and dies but by opening up the connections and the conversation to include clients, competitors and those that 'think differently' we are sustained and nourished by the whole ecosystem.
Q: - How do can you ensure that a drop of water never dries up?
A: - By dropping it into the ocean.
Organisational friction can be subtle and often takes the form of bullsh*t. True connection only comes where there is a lack of pretence and posturing... it's truth that reaches out and breaths new life into 'dis-eased' systems. People drop their guard and start to communicate openly when they are not afraid to do so. Fear is simply a lack of love .... and just as darkness disappears when you turn on a light, it's impossible for fear to take hold in a team or organisation that has recognised the value of caring for each other - which brings us to the last but not least of the three needs:-
- Love. No, not in the touchy-feely, happy-clappy sense of the word, but in the practical, caring way.
Just as our children learn to walk, talk and ride a bike because we make it OK to make mistakes and fun to keep trying, so also do we need to take the fear out work by throwing away the score cards and make it all about learning and enjoying the process. People (and therefore organisations) thrive because they want to, not because they have to or aught to; and they thrive when we take judgement and fear of failure out of the equation.
Everyone is naturally creative, we all love to play, but that natural creativity only arises when we are relaxed - in an environment in which we feel safe and accepted, one where we feel secure enough to let down our hair and be ourselves.
Self perpetuating success
Focusing on building a healthy living system makes life so much easier because the things that we would normally try to engineer and develop arise naturally as a consequence of a happy, productive, focused team. There's really nothing else to do. All these attributes (the subject matter of most of those management tomes) of a healthy organisation come as part of the package when the 3 fundamentals are sorted:
Strengths and capabilities grown cumulatively - a virtuous circle is created: as people learn and grow from their experiences their capacity to learn and grow also increases
Becomes a magnet for all good things - the talent, the ideas, the resources and the opportunities that are needed for sustained self-perpetuating success
Keeps ahead of the times - a healthy organisation is more consciously aware, sensitive and adaptive to it's environment and its changing needs
Builds rapport and trust with clients, stakeholders and the world at large. This follows naturally from the openness that is nurtured within.
Becomes a creative well spring of new ideas. Happy people are creative people - end of story.
Grows immune to negative influences Without a corporate ego the organisation becomes self-healing. Anything that is not healthy, that doesn't serve the ultimate good, is eliminated fearlessly and selflessly.
This, to me, is where the great opportunity lies with the new social software tools we now have. There'll probably never be a substitute for eyeball to eyeball communication but at least there's now the means for large, diverse or dispersed organisations to recreate a sense of place and community - a place where people can come together to discover what is important to them, to share trials, triumphs, hopes and ideas, and to tell stories. I think there's an incredibly opportunity to recapture and sustain the sense of identity and purpose that's so tangible in start-ups but so easily gets stifled by the din of bureaucracy and lack of meaningful connection as organisations grow.
So what makes an effective leader?
I would suggest two things:
- An intuitive grasp, at least on same level, of the three life-affirming principles we've looked at here.
- A willingness to fight entropy. - to cut through the bureaucracy and crap that tends to clogs communication, takes the focus away from what is essential and meaningful, and creates the busy-ness that leaves little time for meaningful connection, playfulness and joy. Good leaders allow good people to run the show and good people do this best when they are free to focus their attention on what is meaningful to them. In a previous post we looked at how whatever we give our attention to flourishes, and this is true on any level - individual, team, organisation or country - in fact, any 'living sytem'. Good leaders help the organisation stay focused on the essentials by simplifying and things, and by eliminating or outsourcing the irrelevant.
- What they don't teach you in Business School
- Entrepreneurial advice... and what no guru will tell you.
 I know this is a bit of a 'which comes first, the chicken or egg' type of situation but the very fact that an organisation is built on these three principles is pretty much all the meaning most of us need to light our personal fires. These three 'living system needs' coincidentally match those at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of personal needs.
 In the next post, 'The personal work styles of leaders' we'll take a look at some different approaches to handling this