“Well-Oiled Machine” is So Last Century

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When I was coming up in business, pundits would describe a successful organization as a “well-oiled machine.” That’s not surprising, since most early management thinkers were engineers.

It was an appropriate metaphor for most of the last century. Many of the largest companies in the world manufactured physical goods. They had well-planned assembly lines. They expected people to fit into specific jobs.

Planning ruled. Most companies prepared five and ten year plans, complete with projections of inventory levels, cash flows, and staffing needs. In the 1950s, General Electric produced the five volumes of its famous “blue books” with guidance for GE managers.

That was then. Today many pundits and theorists describe companies as living beings. That’s a very different metaphor with very different practical implications.

Machines can be complicated. You design them. You can take them apart or add new parts. You can replace one part with another, identical one.

Living beings are complex systems. They grow naturally. You can’t predict how they’ll turn out. And you can’t add or take away “parts” without changing the entire system.

For living systems, planning isn’t possible. Instead you must adapt quickly in accordance with a simple purpose. A sentence or two to define your strategy is enough. It allows you to spot opportunities and guides your adaptation. Instead of detailed instructions, a few simple rules work best.

In a living system, people are not interchangeable parts. They are living parts of a living being. Instead of slipping them into pre-planned slots, a living system allows and encourages growth. You can’t cut people off without damaging the system, even if you don’t need those people at the moment. 

William Gibson told us that “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” That’s true for the living being model of a company. We know they’re out there. And in the years to come, they’ll become the new models.

Boss’s Bottom Line

If you haven’t already done so, start looking for ways you can move to a living system paradigm. Seek ways you can reduce formal planning and increase agile adaptation. Help the people who are part of your living system grow, adapt, and contribute.

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