Time to roll back the machines

Engineers have a lot to be proud of. Responsible for imposing structures ranging from the Egyptian Pyramids to the world’s tallest building (currently Dubai’s Burj Khalifa), from the pacemaker to the iPad, their achievements are immense. They’ve also greatly influenced thought around humans and how we interact, views being challenged by the increasing complexity and accelerating rate of change in today’s knowledge economy.

The term ‘engineer’ apparently dates back to 1325 when it was used to refer to someone who operated a military machine. Philosophers such as Descartes sought deeper understanding of the human condition through a mechanistic view of the world. Centuries later a mechanical engineer, Frederick Taylor, applied the thinking of his discipline to workers and how organisations function. Regarded as the first management consultant, Taylor used scientific principles in his quest to distill the most efficient means of production. “It is only through enforced standardisation of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced co-operation that this faster work can be assured,” he wrote in Principles of Scientific Management. “And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this co-operation rests with management alone.”

That view of workers as cogs in a great machine driven by management has persisted for a century, despite mounting evidence of its flaws. One who argued for a new view of organisations as dynamic, adaptive systems was the late British theorist and professor, Stafford Beer. For Beer, the traditional notion of an institution was like a fault-finding chart that showed how an automobile was organised. “Some people, and the channels connecting them, are shown in red (as if they are the fuel system), others are shown in blue (as if they were the electrical system), and so on,” he wrote in Designing Freedom. “But nowhere on the … chart can you find such a thing as speed, which is what the automobile is all about. What this orthodox organisation chart leaves out of account, when it comes to understanding institutions, is that we are not dealing with pistons, pumps and distributor arms, but with people; and the connexions between the parts are not crankshafts, pipes, and electrical wires, but human relationships.”

How people interact within a dynamic environment, the shifting relationships and connections, was at the core of Beer’s pioneering work in cybernetics, a transdisciplinary approach to studying systems. “The organisational forces by which the whole institutional machinery is held together include psychological conflict, loyalty and perfidy, integrity of purpose, hard and lazy work,” Beer wrote. “They also include all manner of special arrangements making cross-linkages.”

Cognitive diversity – of experience, thinking, personalities – is now regarded as a critical element in navigating organisations through complex times. This has implications for deeply held entrenched views on managing people and strategy. “Especially in complex adaptive systems… we don’t really know how things are going to unfold, so it’s difficult to make forecasts or budgets going many years into the future,” says investment strategist Michael Mauboussin, who recommends creating a small number of non-negotiable decision rules. “These are the things that the organisation stands for and that will guide your decisions. Then you pretty much let people decide on the fly in the field what they think makes sense given what they see. They’re never to violate the rules, but they have a lot of flexibility to actually decide from moment to moment.”

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