Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill. – Buddha
Sooner or later, if you spend any time in the world, someone will say we need a system for that.
By that what they mean is a centralised system, one that everyone can work on, share information and resources and use to meet common goals and objectives.
That seems to make sense, but it almost never really works that way.
Take for example, a company – any company.
If you’re employed at a company you’ll be given a computer and software. You can do much of your work with those tools.
In the beginning, you and the computer you use could be looked at as a system.
Now, what happens if you’re given a computer twice as powerful, or ten times as powerful as the one you have now.
Will you become twice or ten times as productive?
The answer is no, because the productivity of the system cannot be increased just by optimising one part of it.
That is the fundamental principle we must understand when we try and look at things in terms of systems.
The performance of a system results from the interaction between its parts.
If you drove a car into a warehouse and carefully took all its parts apart would you still have a car?
Or would you have a collection of parts with the potential to become a car.
Or, if you took the very best bits from all the cars in the world and put them together, would you get the very best car?
Or one that probably wouldn’t start at all?
Concepts like these have been talked about for years by notable management thinkers like Russell Ackoff but are still hardly understood by much of the modern business world.
Or, for that matter, society at large.
At the same time these ideas simply describe what is happening anyway in the world around us.
If you want something to work in a business environment you might want to think in terms of parts and interactions.
A part is a thing – a system, the people, maybe specialist software.
If we focus on the people, the activity that is most important to how they work together is communication.
In any organisation these days email is probably the thing holding everything together.
The messages flying around between people communicate thoughts, set agendas and negotiate agreements that result in the organisation doing “stuff”.
The stuff emerges from the parts of the organisation communicating together.
In post-modern organisations, ones that effectively have a network of peers who choose to work together what matters is not how they work but how they communicate.
This is why simple things like having standards for web pages or a PDF format that everyone can use are so important.
For example, Richard Stallman, the person behind the free software movement, is a big believer in sending information in a non-secret format.
Many companies will recoil at the idea of doing this, not because it’s a bad idea but because they will worry about the loss of control that’s involved.
But if you’re starting a new business or looking to work with others a simple way to get going is to share information and not worry about the hassles of centralising and controlling how people do work.
Let people figure out how to do their work.
If they need help, then help.
But above all, communicate.
Because if you want anything to happen, you need to work not on what you are doing but in how you are talking to the others you’re working with.
In fact, it probably makes sense to insist that you’re free to do things the way you want to do them.
As long as you use a common language when sharing the results of your work.
A free one.
Because freedom matters.
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