The Graceful Organisation
What can Cary Grant, LeBron James and Pythagoras teach us about organisational design? In this post, I make the case for a new type of organisational model that benefits the individual, the organisation and society. Let’s start at the start.
There are two types of factory.
- Factory A: There is a visible conveyor belt along which physical components travel.
- Factory B: There is an invisible conveyor belt along which data travel.
Both factories are staffed by lifeless robots. In some cases, these robots are electronic and in many cases they are organic. The organic robots are humans who are typically mindlessly slavishly following some documented process.
Their brains remain largely in sleep mode apart from when their manager admonishes them for deviation from the process or for being too slow.
The inert soulless factory, whether it be the utilitarian plant or the more modern steel, glass and soft furnishing kind, is where cognition goes to die.
Wired for life
Disruption has wrested the reins of control from humanity and we find ourselves, again, at its mercy. The pre-industrial era was one of great uncertainty. Today hyper-uncertainty awaits. Technology and global supply chains are only two of the forces that are making the future unknowable.
I am an advocate of harnessing our tribal wiring, given that tribes are the most successful human operating model of all time, tested in the harshest of environments. Tribes survived because collectively and individually they harnessed their cognitive capacity to sense, decide and act in a manner that promoted their survival. Thankfully we are still wired for tribality, but modern society required us to surrender the fuse.
The rise and fall of civility
So am I advocating a rejection of our industrial era behaviours and revert to a more primitive form of existence? Not exactly. In fact, I am advocating the opposite.
The industrial era was a manmade construct that led to the rapid growth in cities. People now lived in very close proximity, unlike on the savanna. For the associated societies to thrive, people needed to behave in a manner that preserved order and minimise the stress of living in what is a social minefield. Laws were created to ensure a base level of societal conduct.
We collectively learnt to be civil to avoid having to revert to legal recourse several times each day.
We learnt that civility has benefits in that it facilitated social bonding. This in turn led to communities, a form of urban tribe.
Over the years, we have refined civility to the extent that it is documented today in books on etiquette. However, as urban society has become less dangerous and our need to rely on others has lessened, some of us today pay little heed to being civil. This is an unhealthy trend and simply raises the overall stress levels in societies where this is happening. This incivility creates societal disharmony. Eventually it will lead to an exodus of the best talent. The employers will follow suit, leaving a failed society / state in their wake.
Unfortunately, civility has something of a brand issue. Today, it connotes elitism and perhaps even weakness. ‘Keeping it real’, underpinned by authenticity and honesty, is understandably considered a virtue. Though cavorting with your boss’s partner because that’s ‘how you roll’, might well be keeping it real, but it runs the risk of damaging your career, and possibly your limbs. I believe we need to reembrace civility as this is key to creating productive human-centric organisations and societies.
Grace – A survival mechanism
Focusing on business, I would say we need to build what might be termed as a graceful enterprise. Grace is both elusive and somewhat ethereal. Animals have it. Plants have it. But it would appear that only some humans are graced with grace. Cary Grant, Pythagoras and LeBron James come to mind.
Famous actor, Cary Grant embraces grace in respect to his graceful sensitivity, particularly in respect of putting others at ease. Greek philosopher, Pythagoras exhibited grace in his elegant theorem of the same name.
Basketball player, LeBron James demonstrates grace through skill and poise on the court.
As it turns out Cary Grant was an acrobat, so he also had poise. LeBron James, by all accounts, is a nice guy, so he exhibits grace off the court as well.
Grace, poise and elegance are entwined. They are often used to describe something pleasing to witness. That said, I think whilst grace embraces poise and elegance, poise and elegance do not imply grace in all circumstances. Let me strip these characteristics down to their primitive forms:
- Grace – The ability to sense what is happening in the environment, including people, and engage in a manner that restores or maintains harmony.
- Elegance – The ability to develop the simplest solution to a problem.
- Poise – The ability to act with ease and balance.
I think of grace as a collective term that captures the essential qualities of grace, poise and elegance. Recursive, and possibly thus inelegant, I know.
Intelligent or graceless?
As it turns out, these are the three fundamental characteristics of living organisms. The ability to sense, decide and act. Do all three well and you get to live. Fail in any one area and it was ‘game over’ for our ancestors.
As I have written previously, we need to build intelligent organisations. We are moving into a world where it is less about strategic planning and more about situational awareness.
The finite game of winning has become the infinite game of staying in play. That is the game our pre-industrial ancestors played. And they played it well, given that you are here reading this.
In essence we need to build graceful organisations that embrace grace, elegance and poise. Graceless organisations can be characterised by cultural toxicity and a lack of awareness of what is happening in their markets. Infighting, micro-aggressions and exclusion preside over harmony and mutual respect. They are unnecessarily complicated in structure, eg. too many layers of management coupled with arthritic decision making. Their leaders respond to events in a knee-jerk and overcommitted fashion, causing organisational imbalance and thus increasing market vulnerability.
The workers are in a continuous state of stress. Fear and anxiety are not the foundations on which to innovate. Cognition is squandered and so there is less available for innovative activities. Such cognitive leakage restricts the throughput of innovative outcomes. This is a problem given that innovation is what attracts and retains customers.
I like to move it
Our brains are optimised to sense and move. We are particularly optimised to engage with other
people. Thinking, in the reflective and pondering sense, is not really what we were designed to do and that is reflected in the low proportion of our brain dedicated to thinking. However outside the domain of sport, we are only valued for our capacity to think and so many of us treat our bodies as simply an intermeeting transportation device.
The market thus values cognitive elegance, but is explicitly indifferent to grace and poise. Though at some level we register grace and pose in others and are lifted by it. Some of us have become so decoupled from our body that we have lost the ability to hear what it is telling us emotionally.
Nonetheless, society values thinking, given its link to innovation. I would argue that if we rebalanced our mind-body relationship and our attitude towards others, we would actually improve our capacity to think. This is why poise and grace are so important and not just elegance.
The future of work?
You will know you are working in a graceful organisation because:
- Your colleagues have excellent interpersonal skills, value your contribution and actually care about your wellbeing.
- Your organisational structure is as simple as it can be. It is optimised to enable you and your colleagues to do great work together, virtually or in person.
- Your leader(s) has the demeanour of a delightful commercial airline pilot. Somehow making you feel good about yourself as the plane rapidly loses altitude. Having pulled out of the tailspin, she offers a measured apology for the inconvenience, thanks you for your cooperation and proposes that you have a wonderful day.
Hopefully, this is the future of work.
I encourage leaders to create such graceful organisations and I encourage the talent to gravitate to them. For me this is true digital transformation. Its less about technology and more about people. We need to put the inhumane factory model to sleep. Graceful organisations will in turn likely stimulate graceful societies.
Let’s get started. After you…