Your Company is Not a Machine

December 12, 2018

Your organization…
Your company…
Your division…
Your team…

None of these things are a machine. In fact, if it’s made out of people, then there’s a pretty good chance it’s probably not a machine.

Oh I know, we all really wish our organizations functioned like a machine. It would be so much easier to deal with organizations if they would just obey a few simple rules. Look, I’m not really asking for much here. All I want is for everyone to behave in a clean, orderly and predictable fashion. That’s not so hard, is it? I mean, I’m not asking for a Swiss watch here, just a modestly steady, reasonably predictable outcome.

Well, apparently, that is asking too much.

People don’t work like that. People are all those terrible things that machines aren’t. They are messy, disorderly, and unpredictable creatures. Yet, we still try and create complicated process models and frameworks that will enable us to predict their work. I do it all the time. Many of us do.

Economists, really smart guys, fell into this process trap for decades. These very smart people came up with rational decision models that would enable proper economic decision making. Unfortunately for all concerned, it turns out that humans don’t work that way. In fact, Kahneman and Tversky showed us quite clearly that people will quite often make decisions that are directly counter to their own self interests. In fact, Kahneman earned a Nobel prize for figuring this out. It turns out we fall victim to things like feelings and snap judgements all too easily. This makes us terrible candidates for cogs in a machine. I’m not just picking on the economists here. The psychologists are guilty of falling into this trap too. We all do it.

So seeking a process to solve our problems is ultimately a fool’s journey. There is no process under the sun that will fix this problem. People don’t behave predictably. They are erratic, emotional creatures that behave in unpredictable ways. So what are we to do?

We have to learn to deal with those feelings. Yuck.

You see, we need to get away from the Taylorist model of treating people like parts in a machine and instead we have to start asking people how they feel. We need to find out what makes them feel that way. We have to find ways to reproduce those positive feelings.

People have all this baggage that we call “feelings” that tend to get in the way of their work. Emotions aren’t really baggage, though. In fact, I suspect that emotions may form the foundation for how we work together. If you want to change people, watch the feelings, not the process. In the end, whether or not I like you is a far more powerful influence than just about any process. Therefore, focus on the feelings first.

So how do we do this? If you are anything like me, a process person, how do you start paying attention to feelings? Well, I don’t know. Maybe you ask. One thing that people do well is describe how they’re feeling. OK, some are better at this than others. Ask them what’s blocking them. Impediments have a way of brining out the emotions. Ask about quality. Quality is a feeling. Learn to see the cues when the dynamic in the room changes. When the boss walks in, or the demanding teammate joins the standup. This is how you start to attend to the things that really make a living organization work.

So remember, your organization is not a machine. It’s a living creature. If we can find constructive ways to align our appetites and build on each others feelings, we might be able to achieve something much more powerful than any process or framework could ever manage.