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.

Nothing wrong with our people

How many of our team members, do you suppose, drove to work this morning, thinking, “I will come to work today and be lousy at my job”?

 

When things go wrong in work teams it’s tempting to blame the individuals.

We look to psychology. We try to address individual misbehaviour; we work on personalities and attitudes.

But there is nothing wrong with our people.

We have good people, with good intent and adequate resources.

Rather than asking “why is this person a bastard?” we should ask “what have we done to make them that way?”

The issue isn’t with how people think or behave (psychology), the issue lies in how people interact (sociology).

Many problems appear to show up in the form of individual misbehaviour, but decades of work on the personalities and attitudes of our people (greater personal insight, personality profiling, task matching) hasn’t delivered much in the way of organisational improvement or leadership effectiveness.

The problem is that our work is so badly designed as to defeat the best efforts even of psychologically insightful individuals.

 

(Hat tip to Elliot Jacques: In Praise of Hierarchy)

 

Problems with work

Many of us maintain an illusion that we solve problems at work.

The reality is that we spend a large proportion of our time, energy and resources solving problems with work.

We fall short. Our ways of working are messy, ineffective, underwhelming, wasteful or completely off-target.

Our people (and institutions) have been educated and habituated to particular ways of working. These default ways of working are not good for the types of problems we are facing in an increasingly fast paced and complex world.

When we try and bring old ways of working to this new type of work, we do injustices: to the work and to our people.

The world has shifted and we need new ways of working. We need to know when to reach for different tools, and what they are, for when the work is different. We need to dig our way out of the ineffective and (frankly) damaging legacies of the limited set of conversations that we inherited out of the industrial material contexts of work in the 19th and 20th Century that impede upon our ability to do that work.

We need to keep the challenge where it belongs: working on solving problems, not solving problems with work.

Justice and the bottom line

morale < job satisfaction < employee engagement < justice

All too often, we break our people. We do injustices to the people in our teams; we send them home frustrated, disillusioned, dispirited, distressed, and damaged.

And all too often, the source of the damage is our conversations: we find we are misaligned, our efforts are misdirected, our efforts are wasted, our understandings clash, and so much more.

When we get our conversations right – when we do justice to the good people with good intent in our teams – we not only produce happy and healthy employees, we drive performance.

 

Waste in knowledge work

When we make with our hands we can see the waste, inefficiencies and breakdown in our production systems. Similarly, we can see the injustices we do to people in damaging their limbs or robbing them of their physical health. But when we make with our minds collectively – knowledge work at scale – we fail to see the cause of the waste, inefficiencies and breakdown in our work. And worse, we do injustices to the people in our teams – not with broken hands or poisoned lungs – we go home frustrated, disillusioned, dispirited, distressed, and damaged: broken in our heads, hearts and being.

How can navigate the full spectrum of conversations required for productive endeavours in knowledge work contexts and to minimise the damage done when our conversations break down?

Or, in other words: how do we talk to get stuff done?