The Machine and the Metaphor

In the industrial economy, when the production of ‘things’ in factories made up the bulk of our value creation work, the machine metaphor became the dominant frame for thinking about how we did work. People in the system were reduced to cogs in an almost literal sense, and when they broke (or rather, were broken,) they were changed out. And the damage was visible and quantifiable too: we sent people home with broken hands, backs and lungs.

The vast bulk of value creation is no longer found on the factory floor, but the machine metaphor is still the dominant frame for much of our thinking about how work is done. While people are not treated as literal cogs in the machine, the system of work (and a person’s contribution to it) is still viewed through the machine lens. As a result, we still break our people. But we no longer send them home with broken hands, backs and lungs, instead we send them home frustrated, disengaged, burnt out, stressed, and dispirited.

The machine and the metaphor have their place, but when they dominate our view of strategy, innovation and learning, when our thinking settles on repetition and refinement, when we only see our people as cogs in those machines (literal or metaphorical), richer capabilities in those same people are left aside.

For the challenges we face in our work today we need new capabilities and richer ways of working that allow for the machine and the metaphor, but in the right times and places.

Change the Conversation

Conversations are how we get things done in the world. Whether they’re simple ones like describing how to bake a cake, complicated ones like launching a rocket, or a complex reimagining the future for a nation, all work is conversation.

Sometimes we come away from conversations feeling satisfied and having got things done. Other times things don’t go as planned, and we’re left wondering what went wrong.

Our meetings (the people in them and the work they are trying to do) are too often misdirected or misaligned. And as a result, our outcomes are poor and we’re unable to move or change together, and we often walk away disheartened, disillusioned, confused, angry or wrecked.

If all work is conversation, then how do conversations work? How are they organised, and why do we fail or succeed? If we could address the misalignment of our conversations what would be different? And how do we get people to bring their best to the conversation, not through their utility – as a cog in the machine – but as a unique contribution?

Our enterprise conversations can be wiser, more effective, and more human.

When we change the conversations people contribute to, we change the way they think and what gets done. And in changing the conversation we provide people with new skills; they are better equipped for the further, inevitable changes of the future.

Change the conversation.