Levers, gears and cogs

© Radical OD Ltd, 2020

In most instances, envisaging the organisation as a machine is deeply unhelpful – and tends to take OD practitioners towards quite mechanistic approaches to their work.

However, a recent conversation amongst practitioners pivoted around the example from our work of senior leaders making demands of their organisations that could never be sensibly met – and those expected to deliver on those promises struggling so to do.

It led to a recollection of the type of gearing toy shown in the picture – and this generated some rich conversation, which, to an extent, connects with recent posts here about “leadership”. And this image is a salutary reminder of the way in which so much management is undergirded by the machine notion: for example, “human resources” (or, even more grimly, the “human capital”) are seen simply as replaceable parts of an overall construction, expected to yield to the demands of that structure and those that seek to direct it.

More importantly, this envisioning reminds us one crucial fact: organisations are, in themselves, systemic – whilst most leadership practice tends to orient towards the structural.

Every good OD practitioner knows that the organisational documents that allege that they show the structures merely give you insight into how the leaders desperately wish their world looked like. The more unsophisticated amongst those called leaders imagine it to be an accurate reflection of reality. Hence, this leads to quite simple observations around leadership, power and negative impact, especially when leadership is mechanically reactive (and hence reactionary).

Senior leaders – already distanced from the primary focus of their organisations – would do best to pause and reflect every time they reach for the lever, given how its turning is likely to be experienced amongst the workforce.

Structural ideas as to how the organisation functions are mere fictions: beneath that patina of wishful thinking lays the systemic connections that facilitate the delivery of what needs to be done in this work context. But leaders need to recall that simplistic intervention in the structural impacts, inhibits, or, at worst, derails the system that is the foundation of the work.

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