Friday, February 10, 2012

people are not interchangeable cogs, they are more like the wind

Great organisations understand that people are not interchangeable cogs, but the wind in their sails.

I've struggled to come up with a metaphor that helps explain why command and control processes are so failure prone. In a command and control process, someone (or worse yet a committee) decides "how we're going to do things" and then builds a process to support this idea. Truly degenerate cases will take a step further and try to buy tools and then build their process around their tools. These struggling organisations then spend years try to find the right people or mold people to fit into their process.

These organisations have fallen into the trap of thinking that people are just pieces of a giant machine and that once they state their process, they simply need to find the correct pieces and hook them together. The problem with this perspective is that people are immensely variable. Finding two identical people is impossible (even identical twins are different in many ways) so the metaphor is fatally flawed. Worse yet, many of these processes try to LIMIT the amount of variability between people to make things "simpler", but in doing so limit the positive energy any individual can bring to the table.

A better metaphor is to think of the people in your organisation as the wind and it is the job of leaders to build processes that can harness and direct this power. This requires a big change of thought from the "interchangeable parts" perspective. Wind is intensely variable but carries tremendous energy... Sailors and shipbuilders recognise this and instead of trying to fix the wind so it always blows in their favor, they build, plan, and execute knowing that the direction and force of the wind is outside of their control.

Joe Wilner has an interesting blog post about why making the adjustment and treating people like the wind has positive impacts on the individual. The positive effects of this attitude change are much larger than any one individual. When you're looking around at your processes and wondering why "those stupid people" are not doing things correctly, perhaps it's time to re-evaluate things and look at the situation with a fresh perspective.

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