Thinking about business systematically

A long, long time ago there once lived a man, who was mesmerized with the night sky… His entire life was devoted to understanding the meaning of the endless sea of shiny dots above. One night, he wondered what would happen had he connected the dots. And just like that, he invented the constellations, which tremendously helped humanity navigate boats, and mark seasons of the year. And for people to remember such wisdom forever, he created stories about the constellations. Stories that we still tell every day.

Connecting the dots and storytelling are primordial human needs. That’s how we communicated back then, and that’s how we talk today. So, here is a little story about organizations.

As the legend goes, Sir Isaac Newton was sitting underneath an apple tree. An apple fell on his head. As a result, he had a “Eureka!” moment discovering gravity… That was a defining moment, because for the first time in human history we used scientific reasoning to explain a natural phenomenon, which opened a massive door for humanity: The Industrial Revolution, and the Age of Machines…

People started to perceive the universe as a well-oiled machine, working like clockwork. Scientists claimed that the universe was made off parts -just like a machine. It could be dismantled, and reassembled. Regardless the discipline, machine thinking, which is still dominant today from management to psychology, to education, and to planning, was based on the following thought process:

  1. Break the problem into parts,
  2. Isolate a part,
  3. Analyze it separately,
  4. Figure out the underlying formula,
  5. And finally put everything back together.

Thanks to this reductionist thinking, scientists discovered a myriad of formulas, and humanity progressed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Indeed, virtually everything we see around us, we owe them to machine thinking: Big buildings, mega cities, cars, planes, and space exploration, etc.

However, machine thinking had a problem: it could only explain static or dead phenomena. Breaking things apart, analyzing the building blocks, and fixing them do not work on living or dynamic things.

Take your organization for instance. Let’s say you are experiencing production issues. Machine thinking would suggest you to re-engineer the manufacturing process so that you can produce more efficiently, like a well-oiled machine. But, no production system in the world could solve your issues if your organization is not keeping up with customer demands, or if your employees are demoralized, or if your working conditions are inhuman. Unless the entire organization is fully aligned, you will experience the same problems again, maybe in a different form. Fixing only one department’s issues cannot solve an organizational problem. Actually, any attempt to improve the performance of a unit could destroy the performance of the entire organization. That’s why we need to concentrate on the relationships among departments.

If we want to create better-operating organizations, what we really need to do is to think systematically, not mechanically. To be more precise, we need to go back to the thinking style of our ancestors, who lived before the Age of Machines… On the next article, we will look at organizations as an alchemist would.

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