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Operational principles for organizational intelligence

Organic organizations naturally exhibit something mechanical organizations invest a lot of money, time and energy to achieve: organizational intelligence. Most efforts to achieve this unavoidably fail. Why they fail deserves a longer piece, for now just briefly: they use the wrong tools and they miss some things. Tools, being mechanical processes themselves, are mostly wrong: we can’t expect a bureaucratic organization to become an innovation powerhouse by adding more processes to their arsenal.

What they’re missing are some organic elements that should be viewed as context for processes; in other words, processes should serve organic factors, instead of the other way around.

Let’s look at three operational principles that are common to both critical thinking and organic organizations:

  • Nothing unnecessary
  • Observe well what’s in front of you
  • Focus on what’s possible

It’s best for teams to reflect on these together.

For emphasis: these are not guidelines for prioritizing tasks, but operational principles. Operational principles are organic factors only if they are not turned into checklists.

Nothing unnecessary: this is almost unintelligible in bureaucratic organizations; once it’s understood, it sends shivers down the spines of the majority, many of whom may themselves be unnecessary. But jokes aside, it’s best to start reflections not in an organizational setting but on a personal level. The issue of what determines what’s necessary quickly emerges and that will lead to questions of personal and organizational identity. Based on our experience, reflecting on what one does in one’s life that’s unnecessary leads to profound realizations and people reflecting as a team on their organization from the same point of view come to similarly profound insights. Many of the so-called “organizational debts” paralyzing companies were accumulated by not following this principle.

Observe well what’s in front of you. A general rule of thumb: the higher the context, the more accurate the view. Of course, it’s easy to raise the bar on context (philosophizing) when things go well, and talk about marketing imagination, how the angle of the curve of the hotdog in the bun in a print commercial influences the perception of the audience in gas stations and similar stuff (many of which are unnecessary!).

In crisis, however, the horizon of the perceivable quickly becomes drastically narrow: focusing in on what saves somebody’s ass right now – and this typically means some KPIs. Fighters know this phenomenon: when the adrenalin pumps, tunnel vision kicks in right away and it’s easy to miss obvious things. When we need that passenger to give up his seat right now and he resists, in the tunnel it seems like a great idea to call security and simply drag him off the plane.

“Contexting”, to use this odd word, is about answering the question What are we seeing here? from the highest point of view, lifting ourselves above the situation. In fact, even simply articulating what’s happening (leaving the higher perspective out), is better than nothing: we are going to forcefully drag a passenger, who paid for his seat, off the plane in front of all the other passengers.

Another simple example: a meeting is never about the topic. This is more evident to diplomats than to managers, who, conditioned by wrong or superfluous narratives, often miss the most important points  – and not only in clear crisis situations.

Additional examples stemming from the wrong narrative are confusing stupidity with creativity, arrogance with confidence, the repulsively rude with a straight shooter, or, horribile dictu, with “passion”, or perhaps making the wrong assumptions about the “friendly gentlemen” who incircle us while we’re removing money late at night from the ATM.

Reflecting on this principle with smart people, who bring a higher point of view to the table, leads to invaluable insights. If necessary, it’s worth bringing somebody from the outside, for example, a geopolitical specialist when evaluating international deals.

Focus on what’s possible. There is a lot of confusion about this one due to the pervasive “everything is possible” narrative. While metaphysically speaking this is true, nothing is farther from the truth when it comes to individuals, especially those in management roles. A better framing is: what’s possible for me or for us now, or in the near term. The rest is speculation, which is never a good idea for most of us.

It’s often hard to accept that people are different on many levels. Even if two sales people may have the same education, the same attitude, the same skills, the same IQ, EQ and other quotients, the same family and social background, the same confidence level, even the same haircut, one may consistently close big deals, the other may consistently struggle. What’s possible for one, will not be possible for the other: their focus should be different, too. Making people compete based on KPI’s set by one guy or by the competition (industry standards) violates this rule: it doesn’t lead to an intelligent organization. (Big does not equal intelligent. More often it equals fragile, slow, debt ridden and centralized, as N.N. Taleb pointed out.)

One of the reasons why companies become so highly mechanical is precisely because their strategy is determined by external factors, including the competition. This leads to illusion bubbles that burst even at the most superfluous observation: let’s higher the top performer away from the competition and we’re done. Such moves almost never work as expected, but they keep on doing it, often changing the whole company to force it happen, no matter what the costs.

Let’s face it: nobody can “bend the universe” to their own will, or “make a dent in it”, and similar pompous nonsense. One can do this, the other can do that; but those whose aspirations are purely quantitative can create dumb bureaucracies only: this is the path of the faceless, undifferentiated majority.

Know thyself! Know what’s possible for you.

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Tags: , , , Last modified: 8 June 2020
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