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Bruce Holland

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Many managers see their organisation as "money making machines". I have no problem with the "money making" part, but I get concerned about the "machine" part.

Because they see it as a machine, they treat it like a machine. They see nothing wrong with "reengineering", "downsizing", "tinkering" or "fitting people into boxes". If they think about people at all, it's about trying to control, limit and organise effort. They see it as an "entity"; independent and largely separate from the environment or outside world. They focus on the various bits (processes, machines, systems) rather than the whole. It's the stuff of silos and politics.

Over a period of time I have come to see organisations in a quite different way. I see them as "living systems" . Or more correctly, as a series of living systems which (like Russian dolls) fit within each other. The outside doll is the environment, the second doll is the market (including all the rich connections between competitors, suppliers and complementary products), the third doll is the organisation as a whole (but unlike the machine which has very thick walls, this has porous walls), the forth doll is the business unit, the fifth doll is the team and the inside doll is the individual.

There are several interesting things about this view point:

  1. It's not the dolls themselves that are so interesting, it's the gaps in between the dolls where the really interesting stuff happens. In other words it's the relationships and how one level interplays with the others and draws energy. There is a critical need in business to see these levels as closely connected and integrated into a whole which is more than the separate dolls.

  2. Seeing each doll as a system, reduces the complexity because at each level each system follows some fairly predictable laws of systems. The most important of these are the Law of Entropy and the Law of Self Organisation - two critical areas where I do a great deal of consulting work.

  3. To understand the Law of Entropy you need to go back to Physics 101, specifically the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This says that all closed systems are subject to entropy (mainly due to friction, heat and light loss) and will in time literally wind down. Mechanical systems will die. Living systems are different because they have feedback (learning, knowledge, new models, and experimentation from outside the system) greater than entropy.

  4. At all levels human energy is the power that sustains the system. Human energy is a function of spiritual, emotional, mental and physical energy. Releasing human energy is the first priority of all managers. Yet in mechanical models they suck energy out of the system. Human energy can be encouraged, nurtured and lead, but trying to limit it, control it or box it subtracts energy

  5. Flow is an important idea in systems. The idea is to see the system as a whole, rather than the pieces that make it up; and then to work continually to balance and improve the flow through the system to the next level (called the customer). If any part is out of balance (going too fast or too slow) it will produce excess inventory somewhere in the system. This is why paying individual productivity bonuses is like playing members of an orchestra to play louder or faster than each other.

The big question is: Why, especially in the last 200 years, have we created work environments which are so diametrically opposed to all that's natural to Human nature? I think it's largely because managers have the wrong model in their mind. Business is not a machine, it is much more like a living cell with porous soft edges. I am fascinated by the soft edge of business and dedicated to helping create organisations that are focussed, fast and flexible.

Best wishes

Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZs most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work
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