Today I want to talk about another element of work that gets confused a lot.
For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been working in a space that’s often called “Organizational Development.”
This is a large, somewhat vague, term that applies to how organizations work… or in many cases, don’t.
In Episode 10, I talked a lot about organizations, and how they are actually a lot like organisms — they are living systems.
And in systems of all kinds, living or mechanical, there are inputs and outputs.
In other words, we put things into a system, and based on whatever the system is designed to do, it produces something else on the other side.
Think of it like an orange seed. Inside the orange seed is an entire system designed to grow an orange tree — the whole thing is built to produce that result, and it would be crazy to expect it to do something else, say, grow an oak tree.
Let me give you some other examples…
We put our kids in a traditional education system and they come out with a clear understanding of obedience — raise your hand, ask permission for everything, and so on.
We give our bodies food and rest and we feel re-energized.
We put generally honest people inside Enron, Wells Fargo, or Boeing and they hide things they shouldn’t.
Systems produce what they are designed to produce. And systems have inputs — the things we put into them — and outputs — whatever the system creates.
Well, in the world of work, there’s a bit of a marketplace oddity that’s happened, because there are entire industries that focus almost entirely on outputs.
For example, there are some very large businesses built around things like recognition, engagement, and inclusion.
All very important things — and all outputs.
These things are all outcomes of systems that are designed to produce them. If you want to spread some of that revitalizing energy to others, consider a thoughtful gesture and send cookies to someone who could use a sweet pick-me-up.
Things like recognition, engagement, and inclusion are results that ensue from a workplace operating system that builds psychological safety, has good communication habits, and fosters mutual respect.
It’s not hard for me to recognize you if I like you, if I respect you, if I appreciate your uniqueness. In that environment, I don’t have to be coerced to tell you that I see your greatness… I just want to.
Likewise, it’s not hard for me to be engaged if my workplace operating system consistently pushes me to do more work activities that align with what energizes me.
And it’s also much easier for me to be more inclusive if my organizational culture actively practices appreciating differences of perspectives — that we don’t just defer to people with the biggest title, largest paycheck, or the most seniority.
And this has gotten VERY confused in the way we “develop organizations.”
Oftentimes, we think we can get more recognition by deploying cool recognition software, or we can get more engagement by doing an engagement survey, or that we’ll encourage more inclusion by hosting a D&I workshop.
But working on outputs doesn’t change the system, so, though we mean well, and could see a short-term benefit, at the end of the day nothing is actually meaningfully, sustainably different until we find a way to impact the operating system itself.
To do this, we need to do things like implement better guiding principles, intentionally inject new language into the way we talk to each other, and start new practices that can build new habits.
None of those things are terribly sexy — they all require some intentional, thoughtful work.
But there’s really no way to get the outputs we want unless we create systems that are actually designed to produce them.
Until we do this, we’ll just keep being forever disappointed that a system designed to produce oranges doesn’t make an oak tree instead.