Bizarrely, if you went into most school classrooms in the industrialised world, you would still hear teachers say or imply, “Sit down, stop talking, do your own work.” I say bizarrely, because this notion that we will excel in our lives only if we do what we’re told, mind our own business and draw solely on our own thoughts, ideas and knowledge just seems unnatural. It has come from the old days when schools were set up as places to train youngsters for a life of isolating wage slavery. Our education systems were designed, in other words, as mirrors of adult workplaces and apart from reading, writing and arithmetic, the key lesson was “fit in or f**k off”; if you want to get ahead, play the teacher’s game, learn what THEY want you to so you can pass their tests (usually information about stuff, rather than insight about self, life and the world) and don’t challenge authority, i.e. get used to working within rigid and nonsensical hierarchies. I may be generalising, of course; I had the odd teacher at school who encouraged me to actually think, make meaning of what I was learning and formulate my own opinions, but broadly speaking, most of my school lessons were dull as dishwater. I even had one history teacher whose lessons consisted of getting one of the students to write 10 words on the blackboard (yes, it was black, not white) which we then, silently and working on our own, had to find the definitions of in our history books and when we had done, we could just sit and do whatever we liked. That was his idea of teaching history. No word of a lie, that was what my history class was like day in and day out. He never questioned us on what meaning we had made of “The Gettysburg Address” or “appeasement”. He never chaired debates that made us think and question, he never gripped us with stories of life in First World War trenches, he never inspired us to find connections between the Protestant Revolution and the modern world, to my mind, he never actually taught anything of real use to me. However, the school system seemed more than happy with his performance because we all managed to get reasonable scores on the tests he would set us, and year after year, there he was, back in his classroom faced with another group of students. Oddly, his were probably the best lessons to prepare us for the mindless busy work that is expected of people in many businesses.
How much of this sort of thing still goes on in workplaces? Mindless, silo-ed busy work that seems unconnected to anything bigger or meaningful. What’s the alternative? Systems thinking shines some light, I believe. Systems display certain characteristics which are applicable to business. Businesses, after all, are systems. As Deming has said, “A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system”. Businesses are not machines, despite what many manager behaviours would have you believe. They are self-organising, living, breathing, dynamic; not a bunch of separate and isolated parts that can be relied on to do their best in isolation. Albert Low in “Zen and Creative Management” stated, “A company is a multidimensional system capable of growth, expansion, and self-regulation. It is, therefore, not a thing but a set of interacting forces. Any theory of organisation must be capable of reflecting a company’s many facets, its dynamism, and its basic orderliness.”
Deming also said, “A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. …A system must be managed. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organisation.” So what is required of leaders in the modern age if they are not to be the controllers? The clue is there in Deming’s quote: when he says the system must be managed, the role of the modern manager is not about rigid plans and KPIs, it’s about nurturing cooperation, fostering connection between all the myriad and diverse elements in the system. The other bit about having an aim is another clue. The manager who wishes to unleash the full potential of their business will ensure that there is a clear line of sight to the purpose of the business. People will know WHY the business is in existence and will feel connected to achieving that purpose. Furthermore, the manager will be less concerned with an individual’s results and more about the value they add to the whole. Hard to KPI that one, though, so it’s left in the too-hard basket.
Systems are naturally self-organising; I do not have to plan and strategise my digestive system to do what it is already organised to do. I also do not have to push or control my digestive system to do its job because it is already set up in a way that leads it to do what it is naturally organised to do. Workplaces, because they are systems, will also self-organise when released of mechanistic and unnatural constraints. In fact, all systems either self-organise or die. If constraints are placed around a system which restrict its natural self-organising tendencies, it will be lifeless. How can leaders expect people to engage in their work if their workplace is dull, lifeless and overly-controlled? Businesses and the people that work within them are not machines, nor parts of machines, that can be shoved into action by external forces, much as Henry Ford would have liked to believe that. It is part of a leader’s role to put the conditions in place which do not hinder the natural self-organising tendencies of the systems in which they operate. What does this actually mean?
This means fostering a culture orientated around values. That means they are not just put in a nice frame and hung in some dusty corner of the building; they are the lifeblood of how people do things at work. They are values which people can tap into and make real meaning of. It is therefore absolutely essential that those who manage the business relate work conversations to the values and that they live them whole-heartedly.
This means fostering a culture of real learning. When a system is open to new information, energy or resources, it will inevitably shift. Being open to learning keeps the system dynamic and vibrant. It will continually re-organise itself, incorporating the new learning. Leaders need to focus their efforts on establishing ways of doing things which help the organisation respond to change by learning and renewing itself. A strong and vigorous system will have a strong orientation to learning and a business that does not open itself to new learning will have a much shortened life-span.
This means fostering conversation and connection. If my history teacher had done this, I might have made more meaning of the things I was reading in my history book. It is counterintuitive in today’s world that you would expressly ask someone NOT to collaborate, NOT to share ideas, NOT to talk. We know enough about how systems operate that it is crazy to let fragmenting silo mentalities reign. Please, do NOT sit still, do NOT stop talking, do NOT do your own work.
This means assisting the business to maintain a coherent sense of identity. Strong businesses are the ones that have a strong sense of identity. The ones that last and navigate more successfully through troubled waters are the ones with a stable value core and the capacity to live their values congruently. Identity is maintained and strengthened at the level of values and purpose, not at the level of tasks. Once again, real leverage is not where old-style managers would have you think (better planning and tighter control) but within the deeper recesses of the system: values and beliefs.
As always, comments that build onto what I’ve written are welcome. I’m always keen to hear from other minds and to expand on the thoughts I set down.