Good companies are less like dead machines and more like growing gardens

“Company” is derived from the two Latin words ‘com’, meaning ‘together’, and ‘panis’, meaning ‘bread’. The root of the word “company” is the same as that of the word “companion” which means “sharing of bread”. At its core a company is more like a living system, then like a dead machine.

The accumulating failures at organizational change can be traced to a fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are machines. Organizations-as-machines is a 17th century notion, from a time when philosophers began to describe the universe as a great clock. Our modern belief in prediction and control originated in these clockwork images. Cause and effect were simple relationships.   Everything could be known.  Organizations and people could be engineered into efficient solutions. Three hundred years later, we still search for “tools and techniques” and “change levers”; we attempt to “drive” change through our organizations; we want to “build” solutions and “reengineer” for peak efficiencies. But why would we want an organization to behave like a machine? Machines have no intelligence; they follow the instructions given to them. They only work in the specific conditions predicted by their engineers. Changes in their environment wreak havoc because they have no capacity to adapt. These days, a different ideal for organizations is surfacing. We want organizations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent-attributes found only in living systems. The tension of our times is that we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines. It is time to change the way we think about organizationsOrganizations are living systems. (Margaret Wheatley)

The most universal challenge that we face is the transition from seeing our human institutions as machines to seeing them as embodiments of nature. … Perhaps treating companies like machines keeps them from changing, or makes changing them much more difficult. We keep bringing in mechanics – when what we need are gardeners. (Peter Senge)

Reality Check:

What does the language in your company tell about the organization – is it run like a machine or grown as a living garden?

More on gardening leadership from the author:

Share This