Posted by: healingtheworkplace | March 5, 2008

Organizations are NOT Machines

This week I came across an article written by Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers called “The Irresistible Future of Organizing”. The article was written in 1996 but the content is still relevant today and I highly recommend that you have a look at it.

In the first paragraph the authors ask the question, “Why have the best efforts to create significant and enduring organizational change resulted in so many failures?”

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers go on to share their thoughts on the subject and they have an interesting tale to tell.  They start off by introducing us to the idea that organizations are like machines.  In their article the authors compare organizations as machines to organizations as living systems. 

The theory that organizations function like machines can be traced back to the 17th century when scientists first began to describe the universe as a great clock. 

Fast forward 300 years and you’ll find that the language of the machine is alive and well in our organizations today. 

According to Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers 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.

Now, this might seem rather silly to you but believe me this is the language currently in use by organizational development specialists who are responsible for facilitating change in many of our organizations.

I observed this firsthand when I worked in a large health care organization with a department called “change initiatives”. Change initiatives refers to all of the major organizational changes that are needed to improve performance and to keep the organization moving forward.     

The CEO who created this change initiatives department was often heard telling people that he wanted the organization to be “flexible, nimble, and able to adapt to change”. Like most leaders today he wanted the organization to be successful in how it responded to the continuous challenges that it was facing.

This leader, like many others, wanted an organization that was adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, and intelligent.

BUT, according to Wheatly and Kellner-Rogers these are attributes found in LIVING SYSTEMS not in organizations that operate like machines.

In their article they acknowledge that, like the CEO mentioned above, “we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines”.

Also, there is a much more fundamental issue at stake here…leaders who understand that their organizations are living systems treat the people who work with them VERY differently than leaders who see their organizations as machines.

This begs the question, “Why would leaders operate their organizations like machines?” I think that the answer to that question boils down to one word…CONTROL.

On the one hand leaders today want their organizations to be flexible enough to adapt quickly to change BUT on the other hand they want to maintain control of what goes on in these same organizations.

Does anyone else see the flaw in this logic?



  1. Very insightful article. I cannot agree more with the conclusion.

    The issue is deeply rooted into the coorporate structures. And it can trace back to the basic functions of capitalism. No matter how big a corperate is, some stakeholders “own” it. And the owner always would like to protect their assets and they need to “CONTROL”.

    Ironically, although the corperate is as important to its employees as to the stakeholders, the employees have no overall controls. How can a living system live without its cells and orgams controlling it?

    Corperation, one of the biggest innovation in human history, needs some fundamental changes in its ownership structures.

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