Here are two useful ways to view your organisation: as machine, and as ecosystem.
A machine is usually a complicated system: lots of moving parts, not necessarily easy to understand… but consistent and predictable once you do understand it, with a limited number of inputs and outputs:
Fail to put fuel in your car, and you can predict fairly accurately when it will stop.
Let your hard-drive fill up, and your computer will slow down.
Leave popcorn on the stove too long, and it will start to burn.
Run out of money, and everyone goes home.
This type of ‘complicated’ is largely reserved for inanimate objects. It seems obvious that things involving people – especially groups of people – won’t follow simple rules of cause and effect, and contemporary thinking is biased towards the back-to-nature sound of ‘ecosystem’ (‘people are not machines’), but there’s still lots of mileage in taking a systematic look at your organisation as a machine.
Mechanistic ‘if this, then that’ thinking runs the danger of over-simplifying things, but it’s great for working through regularly occurring processes. You have to take the time to think logically through processes like:
How money flows through your projects – how you make, request, receive and account for payments and expenses, and how cash flows through the organisation;
The logistics of product or service delivery and stock control;
How users contact you – or you contact customers, and how you make sure you respond in a timely and helpful way;
Completing reports on time, maintaining legal registrations;
Product development and regular (as opposed to custom or one-off) manufacturing;
Routine tasks like cleaning and maintenance.
Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited (amazon link) is a fantastic resource for thinking through your organisation as machine. If you often find yourself desperately trying to focus on doing the ‘real work’ while everything seems to be falling apart around you, this is the book for you. In Gerber’s words, you need to spend less time working in your business and spend more time working on your business, establishing the structures and systems that will keep the wheels on with far less effort from you.
The essential argument of the book is that you should have a clear and well documented system for every routine task in your organisation – and a system for managing and maintaining the systems, and for training people to use them. I don’t agree with his philosophy of aiming to turn your whole business into a MacDonald’s-alike franchise… but find his argument for making each part of your operation require the lowest-necessary level of skill compelling. The point is not to grow a business that can be run by robot, but rather to save time and creative and emotional energy for where it’s actually needed. If you want more time to do the ‘real work’, and/or are aiming to build something that will flourish even in your absence, you need to think like this.
Other resources for fine-tuning and automating your organisation as machine:
Sometimes people overlook… important statistics. My basketball hero, Wilt Chamberlain, who retired 56 years ago, still holds 72 NBA records, several of which are considered unbreakable, including scoring 100 points in a single game. In the 1961-62 season, Wilt set the NBA record of most field goals made (1,597). However, in that same season he also holds the record for most field goals missed (1,562). At the same time we celebrate record achievements, we need to acknowledge epic failures that make those achievements possible. Our successes make us happy, but our failures make us stronger. Michael Jordan expressed that awareness best: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 3,00 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to make the winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The engine inside a car is complicated. A complicated system is a causal system – meaning that it is subject to cause and effect. Although it may have many parts, they will interact with one another in highly predictable ways. Problems with complicated systems have solutions. This means that, within reason, a complicated system can be fixed with a high degree of confidence… here, experts can detect patterns and provide solutions based on established good practice…
Traffic, on the other hand, is complex. A complex system is not causal, it’s dispositional. We can make informed guesses about what it is likely to do (its disposition), but we can’t be sure. We can make predictions about the weather, but we can’t control it. Unlike complicated problems, complex problems cannot be solved, only managed. They cannot be controlled, only nudged. This is the domain of the butterfly effect, where a small change can lead to something big, and a big change can barely make a dent. Here expertise can be a disadvantage if it becomes dogma or blinds us to the inherent uncertainty present in our situation.
Complex systems are typically made up of a large number of interacting components – people, ants, brain cells, startups – that together exhibit emergent behavior without requiring a leader or central control. As a result, complex systems are more about the relationships and interactions among their components than about the components themselves. And these interactions give rise to unpredictable behavior. If a system surprises you, or has the potential to surprise you, it is likely complex. Software is complicated. Creating a software startup is complex. An airplane is complicated. What happens between people on board is complex. An assault rifle is complicated. Gun control is complex. Building a skyscraper is complicated. Cities are complex.
Some other complex (adaptive)* systems to bear in mind:
Your body – and pretty much all of the parts within it
Your thoughts, perceptions, moods
A classroom / school / seminar / conference
A team or organisation
An airport / shopping centre / supply chain
A forest / the climate
Conclusion: Most of the institutions that are important to us are complex adaptive systems that are themselves made up of of complex adaptive systems. The downside of this is that simple cause and effect thinking is far less useful than in a complicated system. The upside is that the right kind of butterfly could cause a wonderful storm…
The book is excellent so far. Thanks to Sharky for the tip.
Seth Godin and Brian Koppelman have had a great series of conversations on Brian’s The Moment podcast. Here’s a little something on the subject of mentors and feedback:
Seth Godin: The memo is only four sentences long. That’s all I needed. That a fellow traveller who knows how to do the craft of giving me feedback gave me those key lines, that’s the kind of notes that I need…
Brian Koppelman: Fellow traveller is a great expression and a great way to think about who you should enlist in your journey. And a fellow traveler doesn’t mean someone who’s already in Wyoming if you’ve starting out in New York. A fellow traveller is someone somewhere along the path that you’re going, somewhere close to where you are. Perhaps they’ve made the trip before.
SG: The whole mentor thing is way overrated… First of all, the math of it doesn’t scale, because the number of people who are successful who can mentor the number of people who need to be mentored doesn’t work.
Number two is, it’s usually an uneven exchange, in the sense that you’re asking someone who is busy and leveraged to stop that and start doing something else with you.
But the real reason is that people who are successful are almost never good at actually coaching people who aren’t successful yet. It’s a totally different skill set…
Running doesn’t start feeling good until you’ve done it quite a lot
Same goes for swimming
Learning to play music (only easy if you hold yourself accountable to the standard of ‘A Tune a Day’ and not Mozart, which is exactly the point)
Or learning a new language
Asking someone out
Developing most skills – yesterday my son played badminton for almost the first time. He went from only-hits-the-shuttlecock-if-he’s-really-lucky to can-serve-and-have-a-hit-around in the space of an hour or two. The difference? A few hundred hits-and-misses
Why should building teams and organisations be any different? It helps to have done it before or if there’s infrastructure you can piggyback on, but every organisation, every team is new, and the world moves on. All of which is to say, context matters a lot, and even if you think you’re solving the same problem, sometimes it isn’t the same any more. The key skills to get better at are learning and communicating.
I’ve been making a mini Lego-alike model from Wisehawk:
It’s tiny, fiddly fun. The instructions are clear, and it’s not rocket science… apart from at the beginning.
At the beginning you’re using the simplest pieces in the simplest patterns – like this:
It’s should be easy, but it’s actually pretty hard to put them together. You’re starting from scratch so there’s nothing to hang the pieces on, and they tend to scatter as you try to attach the next layer. Progress is slow because you don’t have a sense of how the bricks fit together – the pattern hasn’t emerged yet. I had to keep squinting at the instructions as I reordered the bricks, trying to remember what went where.
As the model takes shape, though, everything starts to make sense. Building gets more fun when you start to see what you’re building and you go faster as you get an intuitive sense of how the model fits together. The last bits – the bits that really make it look good – are the easiest of all.
Brick by brick
It’s the same with bringing ideas into the world: we start with pieces that sort-of go together, but we don’t really know how. The pieces scatter easily and don’t add up to much.
But as we find parts that go together, we eliminate possibilities and begin to get a sense of how the larger whole might look. We gain momentum, things start to seem obvious, and it comes together faster. The finishing touches – the parts that most people see – come together relatively easily.
One yardstick of wealth is how much you give away. It’s easy to run out of time and money, but there are no hard limits to your supply of courtesy and consideration.
I’ve had several interactions with courteous, engaged service people this week, and they made a huge difference to a difficult week – I still feel glad about them. Being courteous – assuming the best, being polite, giving respect and space to people before you’re forced to concede ground or fight for it – is a wonderful form of generosity. It makes almost everything better, feels great, and almost always creates more energy than it costs.
Effective executives know that they have to get many things done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate. And the first rule for the concentration of executive efforts is to slough off the past that has ceased to be productive. The first class resources, especially those scarce resources of human strength, are immediately pulled out and put to work on the opportunities of tomorrow.
If leaders are unable to slough off yesterday, to abandon yesterday, they simply will not be able to create tomorrow.
In MoneyballMichael Lewis describes how baseball manager Billy Beane – following the work of sabermetrician Bill James – used statistics to upturn perceptions about a group of undervalued players.
These players often ‘just missed’ – they didn’t quite make base, didn’t quite make the catch, or just fumbled it – and were labelled unathletic or clumsy by coaches and fans alike.
In a lot of cases, though, it turned out that they were faster and made more catches than most of their peers, and this was exactly why they had a lot of near misses: they got close to making runs or catches that other players missed by so much, it didn’t even look like they’d missed.
If someone never seems to drop any balls, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re great at catching. And if someone seems to be miss a lot, it might be for a good reason.
For most of us, missing more is a step on the way to more catches.