Thursday, January 3, 2008

Shifting Metaphors

These days, every time I get in front of a group, the topic of shifted metaphors comes up. Inevitably, whether at a gathering of Agile practitioners in San Francisco, a Stanford class of Program Managers looking for ways to better integrate their programs, or Austrian executives and consultants looking for ways to be more effective, the topic comes up.

It starts with someone mentioning their current intractable challenge: BUILDING an organization, IMPLEMENTING a change, BROKEN DOWN operations, quests for EFFICIENCY, or failed attempts to make things run like CLOCKWORKS.

At that point we bring up what seems so obvious - that they are approaching what seem like essentially human challenges as if they were simple mechanical problems.

I ask, "Do we work in an essentially mechanical organization infested with pesky humans? or Do we engage in an essentially living organization that uses mechanical tools to work better?"

The distinction is very important. Perhaps the most important distinction there is for those who want to really become effective and bring out the generative best in their organizations.

Our day-to-day language implies that we are operating in an essentially mechanical system. We measure performance and goodness based on mechanical standards of efficiency and productivity while getting stumbled up by the very elements that can provide the real solutions to our questing - generative productivity that delivers returns only seen in the organic world. Consider the kernel of grain that, if planted, tended, and harvested with consciousness and care will yield a hundred-fold return. Consider the germ that, once it finds a receptive place to lodge, rapidly replicates and infects the host.

Such are the potential yields of a shifted metaphor.

Understanding this distinction, and mindfully using the distinction appropriately allows individuals, groups, and organizations to leverage the principles of living systems, and for individuals to exercise the essentially human elements that unleash the full power within the system.

This is NOT to suggest that if you are, indeed, operating in an essentially mechanical operation - a production line is one example - that you try to reform it into something it is not. However, you might discover that those pesky human elements are the ones that most need tending to ensure that the living elements of the system are interacting with the mechanical elements to produce the highest value results. And those highest value results are ALWAYS measured in human terms - if only in terms of the biggest bonus, the nicest house, the flashiest (or most fuel efficient) car, or the biggest portfolio.

Generative projects, growing and learning organizations, and thriving and engaged workers require this one small shift. Interested in learning more? Stay Tuned.