Mother Nature, that is.
No, this is not a rant about climate change (although I hope you know how important that is).
Rather, I think it is imperative for us to learn from living systems as we design organizations and determine how to manage them.
I spent most of this past holiday weekend outdoors (it was Memorial Day here in the United States, a time when we honor our military veterans, remember their sacrifices, and give thanks for their service).
We enjoyed wonderful weather, and the inherent beauty of the mountains, streams, forests, and fresh air reminded me of how much we can learn from thinking about the world we are so fortunate to inhabit.
Just picture this: a noisy, rushing stream of cold, clear, freshly melted snow, cascading down the mountainside, bubbling and swirling over the rocks, letting gravity do its will. At any one point in the stream the pattern of bubbles and sunlight is almost frozen in place, even though the water is in constant motion.
The combination of noise, light, and constant motion – framed by stable patterns – is both calming and energizing. Our Sunday outing was a wonderful break from the stresses and pressures of the world of work – and yet it was also marvelously instructive.
While the water and the rocks are obviously not a living system in themselves, they are completely natural, unaffected by human influence. A mountain stream is a naturally occurring environment, the result of millions of years of geological change, aided by weather, earthquakes, wind, and fire – and by intimate interactions with birds, fish, bears, deer, bees, bugs, and other living creatures.
It is indeed an ecosystem – the product of an almost unimaginably complex set of interactions, relationships, and events. No one “designed” the stream and the surrounding forest; no one engineered it; and no one “manages” it. It just is.
The forest along the waters edge, where I stood mesmerized by that stream, offers another important lesson about living systems. No two rocks, no two trees, no two wildflowers, are identical. Each, while part of a “family” of similar things, is unique. The rocks differ in size, shape, coloration, and surfaces. And the trees, bushes, and flowers are similarly members of a species but are individually unique.
The message is clear: every living thing is unique; and the sum total of all that life constitutes an organic whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. And the more varied and diverse the ecosystem, the healthier it is.
I trust by now the lesson is clear: living systems are complex and diverse, ever changing but containing predictable patterns. The plants, animals, and even the rocks and streams that exist today are the result of years and years of natural experimentation; what works persists, and what doesn’t dies off and decays.
What can Mother Nature tell us about our organizations and management practices?
Organizations are, after all, made up of human beings; we too are living systems. We are not machines; and I am convinced that our attempts to create organizational "machines” over the last century and a half is one of the major reasons that so many people are turned off, stressed out, and unhappy at work.
The machine model is actually understandable, since so much of our organizational heritage can be traced to the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine was a miracle that stimulated incredible innovation – just as the Internet and information technology has driven economic and social progress today.
The steam engine, and the electrical motors that followed, led ultimately to the assembly line and to mass production – the ability to produce thousands, even millions, of identical parts that could be assembled into complex machines like automobiles, airplanes, radios, telephones, drill presses, refrigerators, stoves, and every other consumer good imaginable.
So it made sense to model basic organizational and management practices on the core technologies driving the economy; after all, company owners and managers needed to “assemble” large numbers of individual workers to operate those assembly lines. And the economics of mass production demanded highly efficient, standardized processes for producing those millions of identical products.
Variations in output had to be minimized; there could be no tolerance for creativity or individuality on a high-volume assembly line. Following orders and adhering to procedures were absolutely essential.
But as we all know, work has changed dramatically since the 1850's. Today routine mass production is still important, but it has become highly automated and increasingly commoditized (meaning almost anyone can do it; hence the rise of “Third World” production and the reliance on outsourcing and off-shoring). With mass production the goal is to achieve the lowest-cost output at acceptable levels of quality.
Now, in 2014, innovation is central to achieving competitive advantage. Ideas are where the action is; success comes from assembling teams that dream up new ideas, new products, and new services that no one else can offer.
You can’t mass-produce creativity. The teams that succeed today are those that enable creativity and individuality to flourish. That’s why diversity is so crucial; creativity, while still mysterious in many ways, seems to depend on unusual combinations of ideas, insights, technology, and marketplace opportunities.
I am convinced that we must replace our Industrial-Age, Command-and-Control bureaucracies with practices modeled more directly on Nature and living systems.
Next week I will suggest several specific principles for managing living systems – principles that I believe are essential to making the workplace more profitable, more innovative, and, most of all, more fun.