Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.
– Henry Ford
Before seeking any type of change initiative, the leader has to consider the prevailing complexity and interconnectedness within the organization. Every organization is composed of units (diverse individuals, specialized teams and departments, etc.). These units are interconnected in such a way that the unhealthy units have the potential to disrupt the rest of theorganization.
There’s more to an organization than meets the eye: its interconnectedness gives it the features of a living organism. The very notion of Bringing the Organization to Life assumes that organizations are like living organisms. They behave like complex living entities because they are not merely a collection of parts and they need sustenance to maintain their health and vigor.
The first goal of a leader is to ensure that the functions and processes of the organization are sound. A serious dysfunction at this basic level will extend from one area to another, until the entire organization teeters on collapse. This is why action from the outset is imperative. It’s too late if it can no longer breathe on its own.
The Living-Organism Metaphor
As useful as it is to think in terms of the living-organism metaphor, unlike a long-dead human body, it’s possible to revive an organization whose death knell has sounded. I don’t mean to imply that just any leader can revive it, much less those who have given up hope. Such an organization requires a leader who is willing not only to look for vital signs, but who has the audacity to envision new leaps forward for the organization. After all, what are a few more days or months of vital signs if the final outcome is still abandonment?
Building a healthy, resilient organization requires two elements. One, the leader has to understand that everyone and everything inside the organization is interdependent; two, that leader must have both the ability and the energy to change minds in a way that nourishes the general will to rebuild.
Let’s begin with interdependence. Every single action, interaction or inaction can affect the organization—in short, what many call the “butterfly effect.” The flapping of a butterfly’s wings causes tiny turbulences that, given the right conditions, could build up to much strong air currents a short distance away, ultimately turning into a tornado some place at the other end of the world. But how could a force so insignificant affect the whole system? As they say, “stuff happens” from here to eternity.
But stuff also is made to happen, because it is our actions that really determine outcomes, good or bad. Which means that when “stuff happens,” it’s never quite beyond our control. The leader’s intent on keeping the organization healthy has to consider this. And he or she has to be meticulous, looking at all the parts and units of his or her organization. The task is not much different from that of a physician, whose knowledge of human biology, illness, and preventive care give him the authority to diagnose and treat.
Let’s take a few minutes to develop the metaphor a little further. Each level of the human body—e.g, cells, tissues, and organs—builds upon the other in such a way as to maintain the viability of the whole entity. Trouble at one level may have a stressing effect at another or on the whole. Fortunately, living organisms have the innate ability to regulate themselves and maintain stability, or homeostasis.
When one level breaks down or stops working all together, the body is said to be diseased. The human body is one of the most intricate organisms on earth. It exhibits incredible natural harmony and interdependence among its various “components.” When it is threatened by foreign bodies or internal imbalance, its homeostasis will falter and symptoms erupt.
The Organic Structure of the Organization
Organizations—as mentioned earlier—are composed of individuals, teams, and divisions. These three basic levels are interconnected in such a way that the health of each living individual is vital to the health of the entire organization.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a leader to undertake, but think of it this way. When a single member of the organization falls ill, the impact on job performance is obvious. But how will this illness affect interpersonal relationships? Some locally impact on the team is to be expected. What that impact will be depends on the diagnosis—namely, how far or sustained the member’s condition is from the norm. Now, consider the role of that person’s team in the grand scheme of things. A good leader has to foresee how the team’s actual performance differs from its norm, and then to extrapolate how this difference might affect the rest of the organization.
This is why the leader has to consider the health of each member as well as that of the organization. This is what makes leadership (in both the private and public sectors) so complex.
Because members are the organization’s most basic living units possible, their health underpins the health of the whole organization. This is not to say that they all the members carry out the same function or bring into play the same personal resources—experience, education, intelligence, energy, etc. And there are broader differences: ethnicity, gender, religion, worldview, culture, and perception. Imagine trying to facilitate organizational change in the midst of this diversity. It’s a daunting task, one that demands healthy practices. No organization can afford to brush aside the aspect of health.
The next level of organization is the team, where new barriers to leadership appear. It’s not easy getting individuals with diverse backgrounds to work cohesively even in a group. To complicate things,organizational systems need not have a single homeostatic norm. The norm that describes an organization’s health is usually in flux. As it changes, this organization can regulate itself accordingly, just not in the same autonomous way a living organism does naturally. Only its members are totally self-regulating. They are the real drivers of success; therefore, it is up to each to work toward the control of the overall “temperature” of the organization.
The third level of organization is its various departments, within which various teams are also supposed to work in concert. This level corresponds to the organ system of the human body, exhibiting similar interaction with other organ systems. For instance, it’s not uncommon for the members of one team to participate in the activities of another team or even another division. In this sense, teams can span across divisions.
From the most basic building block, the member, to the collective level, the organization is a kind of living entity. Again, it’s not as self-regulating as a real living organism, but the principles are very similar.
The Role of the Leader
How a leader “brings the organization to life” depends on his or her willingness to shift paradigms. If you are a leader, ask yourself this: How will I treat and prevent dysfunction in my organization? Just as the doctor knows the science of medicine, so you need to be well-versed in the “medicine” of leadership. Some people refer to leadership as an art. I want to point up other features that bring it closer to an exact science.
The impact of one unit upon every other unit within an organization can be intimidating. The point to keep in mind in this biological metaphor is that at one end lies the “microscopic cell,” at the other the organization as a whole. Without considering both ends and their intermediate levels, leaders could not possibly attain a complete picture. Whether the organization is healthy or unhealthy—indeed, alive or not—the first step to building a successful organization is to understand all the interconnections.
More than ever, leaders need to challenge assumptions and study what they view through fresh eyes. Organizations are living entities. Understanding this concept is the first step toward building a sound foundation for change.
Perry Wiseman, author, Strong Schools, Strong Leaders: What matter most in times of change