There are basically two ways to understand an organization – no matter how large or how small it is.

You can see it as a mechanism. Or you can see it as an organism – as a body or an open, living system.

For a long time it has been the habit in many places to see organizations as mechanisms. When that happens, we assume that the organization has one input and that energy and information flow in one direction from that input to an output.

So, for example, the owner of a mechanical watch winds the watch. That tightens the mainspring. Over time, the mainspring unwinds, moving an intricate set of gears which make the watch’s hands turn and tell the owner what time it is.

People who think of organizations as mechanisms tend to think they know all they need to know about an organization by looking at its organizational chart. There the organization’s structure and relationships from side to side and top to the bottom are all outlined very clearly.

The problem with such a view is not that it is wrong. In fact, it is correct – as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

It is such an inadequate metaphor for an organization that it obscures more than it reveals. It’s akin to looking at an X-ray of someone’s skeleton and thinking that you know all there is to know about that person. As we all know, there is much more to learn about a person – and, in fact, the particulars about a person’s skeleton are not especially important unless your only job is to recruit a 7’ center for your basketball team next year.

When you look at organizations as mechanisms, you’re also sorely tempted to tell everyone except the person at the top to “just follow orders.” After all, simple mechanisms can usually survive only one input.

That’s clearly not the case with organizations. When we see them as bodies – open, living systems – we recognize that sound decisions have to be made at all levels and in all parts of the body. When the elbow touches a hot stove, it doesn’t wait for the head to tell it to pull away. No, it decides immediately to stop the hurt. Only then is the head engaged to evaluate the damage and decide what to do about it.

When we trip and stumble, the foot doesn’t ask the head what to do. Instead, the foot, leg, spine and both arms immediately engage in a coordinated effort to mitigate the damage by preventing a fall. If the fall can’t be stopped, body parts move quickly to help the body tuck and roll or otherwise break the fall.

If you watch a new baby flail away in its crib, or a toddler try to take her first steps, it’s clear that we aren’t born Whole Body Smart. But we learn constantly and eventually we get much better. There is some trial and error in the process. Which is to say, we make mistakes – and we learn from them.

In the same way, organizations that want to effectively serve their mission have to work at becoming Whole Body Smart.

Eric J. McNulty, director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, says leaders who want high-performing organizations have to help everyone in their organizations make better decisions. And he suggests three ways to do that:

  • Articulate the decision process.
  • Create values-based guideposts.
  • Teach decision making.

To learn more, click here.

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