Organizational health

Well-being and resilience are hot topics right now.  Discussions I’ve been in have focused on individuals not organizations, but the concepts are similar and it makes sense to think of individual and organizational health and well-being as inter-linked.  In my book on Organizational Health I describe organizational health in the same terms as human health.  Here’s what I say (adapted slightly).

‘Joseph Jimenez, CEO (2010 – 2018), Novartis, when asked what was the most important leadership lesson he had learned said that before he starts to address a problem he always asks himself and others whether they are fixing the root cause of the problem or simply fixing the symptoms of the problem.

Knowing that presenting symptoms more likely than not, have underlying causes that need to be investigated and treated is one that many management thinkers have observed.  Art Kleiner is one of these who makes the point that organizations are systems like living beings and are “as unpredictable, unruly, self-organizing, and even sentient as any living beings.”  He notes that “although organizations may not literally be alive, when it comes to running and changing them, they might as well be.”

Taking a view that an organization is similar to a human being makes it easier to grasp that presenting symptoms – for example, not meeting sales forecasts, or the need to agree protocols in open plan space – are rarely cured by a quick fix.   It makes for a healthier organization if some investigation is done of the presenting symptoms.  It makes for an even healthier organization if preventive measures are taken that minimize the likelihood of things going wrong.  The human/organisation analogy is apt for a number of reasons:

They are often described in the same language.  Business writers talk about the ‘organizational DNA’, for example, as in ‘A patriarchal ethos was written into the Wal-Mart DNA’.  Managers use such words and phrases as organizational ‘sensing abilities’ and ‘intelligence’, while being concerned with their organizations’, ‘systems’ and ‘processes’.  They worry about organisational ‘dysfunction’ as they look for ‘indicators’ of organisational health.  Other words and phrases commonly used in both anatomy, physiology, medicine and organisations include, ‘intelligence’, ‘health’, ‘organs’, (e.g. of governance), newcomer ‘rejection’, ‘well-being’ and software ‘viruses’.

They are both complex, adaptive open systems.  That is they comprise ‘many diverse and autonomous components or parts (called agents) which are interrelated, interdependent, linked through many (dense) interconnections, and behave as a unified whole in learning from experience and in adjusting (not just reacting) to changes in the environment.’

They are both frequently ‘diagnosed’ and ‘treated’ following similar methodologies.  Managers are glad when a consultant’s ‘diagnosis’ of an issue comes up with some possible solutions (‘treatments’), and consultants deploy a variety of ‘diagnostic tools’ even though these may come up with a simple response to a complex situation.

They both have life cycles that follow similar paths to human beings: some live into maturity and old age, some get ‘sick’ and either fail to flourish from birth or die young. Larry Greiner wrote an article in 1972, Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow that is as fresh today as it was when first written.  In the article he notes that he has drawn from ‘the legacies of European psychologists’ to extend their observations on human development to that of organizational development and growth.

They are both more likely to thrive if they are consciously nurtured and developed.  Going into any bookshop will reveal the stacks of information on parenting, managing illnesses, child and adult learning, self-help, diet, nutrition, stress management, and so on, all aimed at developing people’s mental and physical health.  Similarly, business and management guidance talks about organizational learning, behaviour, intelligence, and so on.

They are both responsive to cultural and environmental conditions. Look at the business newspapers or websites on any day of the week and there are reports of companies responding to changes in their operating contexts.  All of these major shifts in company strategy are attributable to external factors – social, economic, geo-political, etc.  People too respond to cultural and environmental conditions: they adjust their behaviours to suit the context – office formality is different from home informality.  They cut their spending if they have been laid off, and so on. Failure to adapt rapidly to change is a symptom of lack of adaptation capability and will take both humans and organizations to extinction.

They both require intense and continuous communication and co-ordination between the elements to stay functioning efficiently and effectively.  In the human body this ‘communication’ is conducted through neural pathways, via the bloodstream, and via the signalling molecules.  In organizations it is conducted through various formal and informal channels.

However, the human/organisation analogy has two significant limitations:

First, it misses the point of what is changeable and what is not.  Take the notion of DNA which is in remarks like ‘It’s in the DNA’ is a frequently referenced human and organizational term.   Here’s how one writer explains organizational DNA.  ‘There are fundamental rules that determine how organisations behave – policies and practices that have a tremendous impact on motivations, capabilities, and behavior. These rules are so powerful, and so often taken for granted, that it is entirely apt to refer to them as organisational DNA.’

For humans their DNA, even given modern gene therapies, is pretty much fixed whereas for organizations the elements that are the proxies for DNA which include policies, rules, values, principles, control methods, and power structures, can be changed to a greater or lesser extent.

Second, taking a single perspective of an organization i.e. it is like a human body blinds us to other ways and perspectives of thinking about and interpreting organizations.  (Try this test ).  Gareth Morgan in his book Images of Organization presents eight metaphors for organizations each compelling in its own way. He discusses organizations as: Machines, Organisms, Brains, Cultures, Political systems, Psychic prisons, Flux and transformation, Instruments of domination.  But although he talks of them as independent ‘lenses’ Morgan also makes the point that the insights gained from one metaphor are helpful in interpreting another.’

What is the value of treating organizations as living organisms and what are the limitations of this?  Let me know.

Image: 15Five