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A Well-Oiled Machine, A Family, and an Empty Chair: How to Disrupt Business Organizations

Connecting with the Higher Purpose of Organizations

by Jordan Myska Allen

Some of the most innovative businesses of our times have a completely new way of understanding the nature of an organization. As a result, people are able to see farther, think wider, solve problems more creatively, and feel a great alignment with their work.

Business Metaphors:
Out with the Old, Out With the New

Consider the most common, modern metaphor for how a good business runs—as a well-oiled machine. The problem with thinking about a business as a machine is that then humans are just swappable parts, treated as inanimate objects. The result is the kind of dry, stale work environment that led to Office Space, Dilbert, and generally dislike for working corporate culture.

Progressive companies have adopted a different metaphor in the past few decades—that of a family. These companies have more welcoming, friendly work environments and culture, but business and family do not always mix. And though the freedom is hard to beat, working at your home does not always lead to the most productive days. Just ask any freelancer.

In With The Evolutionary

The companies that are changing the game think of themselves in a different way entirely: they see the company itself as a living organism, with its own evolving purpose. They are able to compete with the well-oiled machines while creating and maintaining a warm, welcoming, and honest culture that people love.

Like any living organism, companies can adapt. With technological increases and social media, they must constantly change based on new circumstances. Most are walking in the dark, simply reacting. Yet, like a kitten opening its eyes for the first time, the metaphor helps the organism gain self-awareness to anticipate changes and more consciously navigate complex, shifting environments.

And like the human body with its ecosystems of bacteria and other life, employees are an integral part of healthy functioning org; they are deeply important to the thriving of the overall system.

Skeptical? Try out this simple practice at your next meeting, and see what happens.

The Empty Chair

Some of the most innovative businesses put an empty chair in their meetings, representing the interests of the company as a whole. At any time in the meeting a person can reference the chair as a representative of the company itself—if the company were a self-aware organism, what would it say?

Anyone can sit down in the chair and speak as if they were the company, considering short and long-term advantages, speed, values, and most importantly, alignment with the overall reason-for-being. Meetings often end with someone voicing the opinions of the company, from the (no longer) empty chair.

The result is a sharper focus with less egotism. Everyone is aware that there is a higher purpose at stake, and decisions and discussions are automatically more deeply aligned.

Beyond Companies

If you are not in a leadership position at work, it is likely that this practice will seem a bit too strange to introduce out of the blue. Yet this way of thinking can be generalized to understand the systems we are a part of even more deeply.

Consider trying it out with the following social entities—seeing each as its own organism, with separate interests, preferences, and goals from the individuals that comprise them (including yourself):

  • Your family
  • Your romantic relationship
  • A neighborhood
  • Your city
  • Your industry
  • A company you hate
  • A company you love
  • The US Congress
  • Your favorite sports team
  • Your group of friends

Have a conversation with the entity, and try to imagine what it would say as an autonomous being. Consider what your relationship is to the whole, how it might differ from others, and give the empty chair practice a shot. See what changes in your life.

*** For more information on these companies, their superior performance, and other unique practices, check out Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, and ReinventingOrganizations.com

Image: Some rights reserved by Roberto Trm


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