Sunday, January 11, 2009

Business: It's not life on Mars

"Western cultural views of how best to organize and lead (now the methods most used in the world) are contrary to what life teaches. Leaders use control and imposition rather than participative, self-organizing processes. They react to uncertainty and chaos by tightening already feeble controls, rather than engaging people's best capacities to learn and adapt. In doing so, they only create more chaos. Leaders incite primitive emotions of fear, scarcity, and self-interest to get people to do their work, rather than the more noble human traits of cooperation, caring, and generosity. This has led to this difficult time, when nothing seems to work as we want it to, when too many of us feel frustrated, disengaged, and anxious."
- Margaret J. Wheatley

What is an organization? Start surfing the web and you will get more and more confused. As with everything else in life the more you learn about a subject, the less you feel that you know. Ignorance is bliss, or is it?

There are literally hundreds of definitions of what an organization is. I won’t bother you with all of them so let’s just go with one that is very common and probably one of the best definitions:
“An organization is a group of people, sharing the same objectives.”

From this we learn:
1. An organization consists of a group of people
2. Having some common interest that they want to achieve (a goal, a vision etc)

A problem with this definition is that in reality the various stakeholders rarely share the same objectives. The shareholders wants to maximize the shareholder value, the managers want to climb the corporate ladder and the employees want to develop a certain skill. These are just some silly examples (or are they?). The important thing to note is that there are many goals competing for attention in an organization.

But this is old news. Traditionally leaders and managers have tried to control the organization in different ways to align all competing wills and goals. The hierarchical organization was created to maximize control and efficiency. In order to exercise control companies were built on rigid structures with closed borders to the outside environment.

However, as we discussed in an earlier post, times have changed. The business environment has changed. The world is much more complex and uncertain than ever before. In order to maximize shareholder value (or perhaps even stakeholder value) we need to find a new definition of the organization. Why? Because structures, incentives, culture and relationships will look different based on how you view an organization. And all these factors will together determine the organization’s performance.

A better way to look at the organization might be through a systems perspective.
“Systems of independent activities linking shifting coalitions of participants; the systems are embedded in -dependent on continuing exchanges with and constituted by - the environments in which they operate.” (Scott)

“All social systems, including organizations, consist of the patterned activities of a number of individuals. Moreover, these patterned activities are complementary or independent with respect to some common output or outcome: they are repeated, relatively enduring, and bounded in space and time." (Katz and Kahn)

In other words, stakeholders need each other. It is ok to have different and individual objectives, as long as we align them through our organization. However alignment cannot be based on agreement as that by definition creates conflicts, groupings and power domination.

Yasuhiko Genku Kimura instead suggests that we embrace alignment of intention as we then can allow people to differ in their opinions and still align in their intentions. We can then leave the usual politics of opinion-domination, which is subverting the very integrity of human-unity.

Instead we can begin to design our company around principles like openness, partnership, equality, transparency, learning, participation, self-organization, cooperation, caring and generosity.

As implicated by Margaret Wheatley the same rules apply in life and businesses. Why? Because our business life is just a part of life, a sub-system in a larger system.

Now we are getting somewhere. The road to building the natural organization starts here.


  1. I totally agree! Why are they complicating things? Prestige?
    Never heard of Yasuhiko before. Will have a look as it seems interesting. Thanks!

  2. Hi!

    Thank you for commenting! Yes, I believe prestige is one factor. But I think the most important part is that we all have learned to act and do things in a certain way. Today's leaders learned from yesterday's leaders and so on. It's about what Peter Senge calls "mental models". It is hard to break out of our thought patterns and the behavior is reinforced by connecting with like minded people every day. I guess we will see quite a revolution when generation X and Y takes over. Completely different views on leadership and cooperation from earlier generations. /Jonas


Your comments are highly appreciated. I want this to be a living blog with lots of conversations as this is a great way of learning.