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Machine. Ecosystem. (1)

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:

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...