the blog of dan pontefract | The Anatomical Dissection of a Healthy Organization
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The Anatomical Dissection of a Healthy Organization

For an organization not only to survive, rather to thrive, I propose there are nine key characteristics needed to be demonstrated equally by all persons in said organization, and the organization itself. (as a whole)

There’s a short quip from The Cluetrain Manifesto that always sticks with me:

Business is a conversation because the defining work of a business is conversation — literally. And “knowledge workers” are simply those people whose job consists of having interesting conversations.

If an organization is made up of people and, as David Weinberger suggests, the work itself starts first with a conversation, there is a duty to both define and illustrate how each of the aforementioned nine behaviours link to what could and should be in terms of fostering a healthy and prosperous organization.

With all due respect to the French painter Georges Seurat, I’m repurposing his work “Model Facing Front (study for Models) 1886” <Musée d’Orsay, Paris; © Réunion des Musées Nationaux> to help demonstrate my overarching thesis. Feel free to flame me on this artistic desecration.

 

Brain – Learning 2.0

If conversation is at the root of defining the workplace, learning needs to be thought of as the brain that fosters said exchange. Learning 2.0 (the shift from training is an event to a more collaborative, connected and consistent contribution and consumption of knowledge, expertise and acumen) presents an environment where formal learning is equally thought of with informal and social learning. The brain acts as that collection of neurons and synapses that permits the organization to exchange knowledge amongst one another, through formal, informal and social means. The brain is key to enhancing (and improving) the intellectual wealth of the organization; without you, conversations don’t even get started. Maybe it’s found in “The Learning Executive” as Jim Collins points out.

Eyes – Strategic Vision

The eyes of the organization (the org itself, leaders, individual contributors) are what upholds and reinforces the strategic vision. As Henry Mintzberg states “Vision is unavailable to those who cannot ‘see’ with their own eyes.” If one cannot see a vision, one surely is unable to converse and if we’re not able to converse, then we most certainly are unable to move forward with a vision.

Ears – Listening

The health of an organization, be it employee engagement, customer satisfaction or competitive and innovation drivers, rests with the ability to listen. Maybe organizations should be more like the Japanese. In the book In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman prove that “The Japanese are a listening society. They were the original researcher of excellent companies”. If we’re listening to one another, our stakeholders, and so on, I believe we’re conversing. And if we’re conversing, clearly we’re in a position to thrive.

Mouth – Proactive Communication

Much has been written about communication and its need to be an institutionalized fabric of the ‘new’ organization. Where I differ in thinking, however, is not that it shouldn’t be there; rather it needs to be proactive. Much is said about transparent, open and thoughtful communication and how they are indicators as to whether or not an employee decides to stay with an organization (see Deloitte’s annual Ethics and Workplace Survey, for example) but to truly achieve a conversation that improves business and people performance, we need the communication to become proactive. Before ‘an issue’ arises, sort out how to proactively communicate the consequences to stakeholders before it’s too late. Before the ‘good news’ hits the street, the team, the stakeholders, etc. should find a way to proactively communicate it before it’s too late. Proactive communication regarding any situation is something all leaders should behold.

Heart – Empathy and Community

An organization is dead unless there is reciprocal empathy and a sense of community, both figuratively and literally. Maybe it’s the Open-Empathy Organization as Patnaik and Mortensen describe. At the heart of any organization should be leaders, teammates, individual contributors and partners who all employ a sense of empathy. That is, the ability to identify with and understand the feelings and motives of others. If there isn’t reciprocal empathy, we very easily have one-sided, possibly pedantic power struggles and that will never lead to the conversations an organization requires to foster growth, innovation & engagement. Furthermore, if there isn’t empathy there certainly isn’t a sense of organizational community. With no sense of building community (either inside of the organization, or – coincidentally – with the community outside of the organization itself) we most certainly are not going to be building our conversations.

Central Nervous System – Leadership Evolution

Perhaps at the crux of any organization are the values, behaviours and expectations that provide a compass of anticipated interaction and outcome. My personal thoughts and the ideas of many espouse a leadership model that must evolve; a framework that builds and unites people to people, content and intellectual wealth. The Central Nervous System (CNS) is analogous to the very heart of a new leadership model for all of us, unless of course you are a sponge or jellyfish. It’s the central body that integrates, coordinates, digests and actions the various factors of organizational growth, including people, markets, crises, priorities, etc. To take a page from the wonderful thoughts of Jeff Piontek but positioned slightly differently, we can’t lead the Flintsone’s way when we’re in a Jetson’s world. Once we evolve our leadership style, the CNS will positively reflect this in everything that we do within the organization because it’s the central body that orchestrates our actions.

Hands – Networks / Enterprise 2.0

The hands help us cultivate our social networks. Through the use of Enterprise 2.0 we can both expedite the strong and weak ties of our network … and … increase performance and engagement within the organization. Through our hands and fingers, we shake hands and meet new people for the first time. This simple action of physically connecting to someone is often the first step in a new social connection, often overlooked as integral to the process. Our hands are also equally important in a virtual / 2.0 world. Those ten fingers of ours are pounding away on keyboards, video game consoles, tablets and mobile devices enriching our lives in conscious and unconscious ways to drive networks that drive business that drive performance  improvement. As Andrew McAfee states “People collaborate in order to get work done and solve problems, and these days there’s no shortage of problems to solve.”

Knees – Flexibility and Adjustment

To achieve both business results and employee engagement, one requires an element of flexibility and the ability to counter a stated path with adjustments. A conversation that may lead to improved business results and/or employee engagement will simply never occur if rigidity is a cemented pillar in the DNA of any organization. The knees on a human are equivalent to said flexibility. Without our knees, it is extremely difficult to pivot, to rise, to shrink or even to speed up or slow down. Leaders and the organizational construct ultimately require this type of flexibility and adjustment to exist pervasively amongst all employees.

Feet – Speed to Execute & Perform

For any organization, be it for-profit, not-for-profit, academic or otherwise, a degree of success can be attributed to the ability to execute and perform. The feet of our bodies helps us all get from Point A to Point B, but without many of the aforesaid traits in the anatomical dissection of a healthy organization, they all remain moot should we not employ the consensual task of achieving what we say we’ll accomplish in a timely manner. Those conversations amongst leaders, employees, partners and customers will prove fruitless and ultimately wasteful if we’re not all in agreement that we need to achieve the goal, whatever it may be. The speed to execute and perform, therefore, is a very necessary trait to a healthy organization. Of course, what we’re not referring to is blind faith or aggressively senseless implementation; it’s the ability to take stock of all criteria, success factors and targets to reasonably execute and perform on the mission … with all employees and stakeholders aligned.

In Summary

The analogy of the human body to the success and health of an organization may seem trite, but it’s always resonated with me. After all, what would an organization be without us fallible humans, anyway?

I’ll leave the last word to my favourite trio: “We believe that individuals and institutions are in reality coming to need each other more than ever before.” courtesy of authors John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison in their post The New Organization Model: Learning at Scale.

1Comment

  • Debbie Payne / 1 December 2010 10:44

    Dan,
    Most enjoyed your analogy and thinking on this. It seems to me a no-brainer to relate an organization to an organic human being, rather than a structure. In fact, you could take it a little further than the parts and explore the interrelatedness of systems internally quite nicely! As I read this I thought of the work of Bennis in his Organizing Genious (a favorite of mine on collaboration), and also the image of the feet being grounded in reality, anchored firmly to the core values, but also able to shift and move and change with the environment. Thanks for giving me food for thought.
    Debbie

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