Written by Laurence Van Elegem

Organisations are living organisms. Like every biological entity they move, reproduce, compete, interact, grow (or shrink) and turn substances from their environment into energy. Why is it then, that most leaders treat them as if they are immobile architectures? As if they consist of constant and reliable pieces that obey predictable laws of nature. They swear by fixed org charts, where everyone has their place and a function which can be measured by rigid KPIs. They carefully plan their strategies, expecting that both the outside world and their own employees and teams transform at a very slow speed.

Organise like an organism - How to profit from the natural form of your company

A swarm of switching systems

But organisations – especially large ones – are a beautiful chaos of shifting and evolving relationships. Much like those mesmerizing swarms of starlings or even the cells in our bodies, their form and substance changes and renews permanently. Talent is harder than ever to find, and even more challenging to keep hold of. Products, business models and services keep transforming along with the fickle tyrants that consumers are. Departments and teams change form and switch continuously. We need to stop managing as if we are dealing with orchestrated and predictable architectures, and start running our organisations like the multicellular organisms that they are. In an accelerating market, we need to respect the natural rules of organisms.

In a complex, interconnected and interdependent system, focus on relationships. Not on individual employees.

Rule 1 – Respect How The Whole Is Bigger Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Emergence is one of the key processes of most living organisms. It is what happens when the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the most beautiful example of emergence is life itself. You can dissect, chop up and analyse a biological system as much as you want, but its separate inanimate molecules do not hold ‘life’ as an inborn characteristic. Organisations are characterised by this very same emergence: the very best ones are the result of a special synergy of talent which outgrows the skills and knowledge of its isolated employees.

What’s key here is that emergence cannot be analysed. Not in the strict sense of the word. Analysis consists of separating any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements. When the sum of these elements (the employees) does not equal the whole (the company), this method does not make any sense. This is one of the main reasons why no one has yet found the magic recipe for the perfect organisation, or why so many consultancy methods and models fail in reality. We cannot understand emergent entities – like organisational success or corporate culture – by analysing them.

According to Systems Thinking, organisations can only be figured out through synthesis. That’s because they have a  high level of interconnectivity and interdependency. Synthesis tries to gain an understanding of an entity through the context of its relations: what is its environment, how does it function in it and how do the individual cells relate to one another. So if you want to make sense of your organisation and stimulate it, focus on its connections and flux of influence. Do not target the individual nodes, as most organisations still do.

Rule 2 – Resolve by Relations

Neglect relationships and you don’t have a company, but a group of people that works together in the same building.

Companies are not plans, strategies, missions, values, recognizable logos or even products. Companies are people. People who create and live by values, build your products or embody your services. Or people who buy what you are selling. The relationships between them is the glue that holds your company together. Neglect them and you don’t have a company, but merely a group of people that works together in the same building. Both are VERY different things. Only the first will be able to accelerate along with the rate of change.

Just like your customers, your employees have become empowered by the impact of digital and social. It is increasingly difficult to “manage” them and tell them what to do, and when or how. If you regard your company like an organism, steering separate individuals makes little sense anyhow. So, let them pilot themselves as much as they can, through self-management, holacracy* or however you want to call it. Let them form natural swarms of collaboration as much as possible, instead of forcing them into artificial groups.

Rule 3 - Manage For Movement

Technology is accelerating both our environment and our companies. That is why one of the main rules of Organism Management is `Keep It Moving’. Do not try to pin talent down in one fixed role, one department or even one team. Switch them around as much you can, so that they can keep building stronger relationships. So that they can feed their thirst for learning, challenge and adventure. If you do not, they will want to keep in motion anyway and move to the competition. It’s as simple as that. So in order to avoid movement towards the competition, stimulate the velocity inside your organisation.

To be clear: ‘old school’ promotion is not the kind of migration I’m talking about here. This is often just another way of hyper-specialising your employees. They remain in the same silo, with the same people but they get a stronger voice, merely based on the fact that “they have been there the longest and know what they are doing”. Corporate climbing is not a fertile kind of mobility.

I am talking instead about accelerating creativity by moving your talent around. Let them influence each other and permanently develop by continually shifting their perspective. And, yes, if they have found a place they like, let them be. But do not try to keep everyone in the same neat little teams all of the time. You think it’s efficient, but actually it’s counterproductive and inhibits innovation.

It is no coincidence that the most successful companies are `talent magnets’. A lot of us assume that this is because prosperity attracts talent. But isn’t it the other way around? Do the people not come first. And then the success? I believe that those giants understand the laws of emergence, relationship management, empowerment and swarming better than any of us. This is what enables them to attract and keep the best talent. And this is what makes them golden. They are living organisms, not inert stone structures.

* Holacracy is a new way of running an organization that removes power from a Management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles.

Picture: Elisa Dudnikova on flickr