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Seeing Organizations Through a Different Lens

Updated: Dec 31

by Ulises Pabón

No one is indispensable.

I hear this frequently from managers at all levels. Sometimes, it’s stated as a matter of fact, as a universal truth that no one challenges. Other times, I sense it’s their ego hiding the despair of losing a key contributor; or an ill attempt to motivate the team after the loss of a valuable colleague.

Whatever the case may be, the idea that no one is indispensable seems incontestable. After all, people leave organizations every day and organizations keep plowing on. And while the dubbed "great resignation" is challenging leaders across all industries, it's far from a threat to long-term business continuity.

But ideas have consequences. Once you accept ‘no one is indispensable’ as a universal truth, that conclusion can dangerously lead you to the following corollary: people are nothing more than interchangeable parts of this huge machine we call “the organization”. And once you cross that threshold, you will turn a deaf ear to the idea that people bring unique and special capabilities and gifts to the organizations they participate in. Left unchecked, the idea that no one is indispensable dehumanizes us.

Left unchecked, the idea that no one is indespensable dehumanizes us.

In The Right Kind of Crazy; A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation, Adam Steltzner recounts his experience at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory while leading the design and execution of the Entry, Descent, and Landing phase of Curiosity – a rover the size of a MINI Cooper destined to land on Mars.

It’s a fascinating story full of insights on what it takes to lead an extremely talented team to solve daunting problems. Here's a proposition that caught my attention.

An organization needs to reflect the people in it. We are not interchangeable human units of effort or skill. Each of us is unique, and the organization needs to be shaped around us.

Not wanting to be held hostage to the talent that might walk out the door, most organizations chafe at the idea that people are unique and that any one person’s contribution might be crucial. Institutions want to believe that policy and process, not individual belly buttons, determine the quality of their product.

Perhaps you think that Stelzner’s comment applies only to teams of specialists tackling complex problems; that this logic doesn’t apply to frontline employees at the call center, the retail store, the construction site, the manufacturing plant, or the steel mill. Maybe you’ve concluded that the crude reality is that blue-collar workers are nothing more than factors of production that can be and are uneventfully replaced.

Think again.

In Humanocracy: Creating Organizations As Amazing As The People Inside Them, authors Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini spotlight Nucor, America’s largest steelmaker. At Nucor, it’s the expertise and autonomy of frontline workers that drive progress. Here's a snippet from the book.

Nucor’s management model has been built to maximize creativity, competence, collaboration, commitment, and courage. Not coincidentally, it is these human attributes and behaviors that are most critical to producing extraordinary results. True to the spirit of humanocracy, Nucor’s model isn’t about pushing employees to do more but giving them the opportunity to be more – more than blue-collar workers, more than order takers, more than mere operators, more than employees. Nucor’s frontline team members are experts, innovators, risk-takers, and owners. Nucor proves unequivocally that every job can be a good job, whatever the industry.

Hamel and Zanini present a radical thesis in Humanocracy. In a bureaucracy, they argue, human beings are instruments, employed by an organization to create products and services. In a humanocracy, the organization is the instrument – it’s the vehicle human beings use to better their lives and the lives of those they serve.

In a bureaucracy human beings are instruments, employed by an organization to create products and services. In a humanocracy, the organization is the instrument – it’s the vehicle human beings use to better their lives and the lives of those they serve.

Defining organizations as instruments that need to reflect the people in them is a game-changer. It disputes the notion of people as factors of production and it invites us to view organizations as platforms of collaboration; as vehicles at our service, and not the other way around.

As 2021 comes to a close and 2022 gets ready to unfold, reframing our view of organizations and seeing everyone as a unique and contributing human may be our only hope in surpassing the challenges the new year will bring and in seizing the opportunities it will deliver.

Happy New Year!

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