Issue 12 | Feb 2010


Organisations Are Not Like Physical Bodies

Hot Off the changingorganisations Blog

New Website



"Stephen has developed the eight people in our team in a very pragmatic, nurturing and respectful way – they feel confident too. He holds a lot of mana. He has innate, natural ability that builds him the respect of the team."

Fleur Murray
Organisation Development

Welcome to our newsletter for February 2010 which is for my clients and other professionals interested in organisational change.

Organisations Are Not Like Physical Bodies

I have just finished playing tennis in the New Zealand senior tennis championships. Basically this means tennis for older people – there were events for people in five year age groups ranging from 35+ to over 80 year olds.

It was unusual for me to be one of the younger people at a tennis event – more commonly I’m playing people half my age or younger! I need to learn a few more tricks to deal with these cunning veterans.

Catching up on the latest news on various friends, acquaintances and players, it seems that the older I get the better I once was! Amid the reminiscences and planning for future conquests, talk inevitably turns to injuries and how to keep the body going.

Many older tennis players have had knee or hip replacements, eye surgery or other operations to enable them to keep going with the sport they love. Because a new knee or new hip has a certain life span, players plan out how much tennis they can play in order to maximize the use of their new joint.

This led me to ponder on what a lot doctors and surgeons know about the body as a machine now. Surgery operates to restore and improve the mechanical functioning of the body. But the essence of the person, the essence of life, thought, emotion and spirituality still remain mysterious. So there are the mechanics of the human body, about which we know quite a lot and can intervene with surgery and so on to improve the mechanical operation of the body, thank goodness. But we can’t do this with mind, spirit, soul, emotions, or with life itself.

So, for the individual, there is a difference in the way we treat the body and the mind. There is a split between the physical, mechanical aspects of the body (characterised by the known, and operable by surgery) and the non-physical, spiritual, emotional, thinking aspects (characterised by the unknown) of life.

In our organisations, we tend to see the same kind of split between the physical (e.g. organisation structure, systems, technology, processes) and the non-physical aspects such as culture or leadership.

In organizational life, as in individual life, we tend to separate out or split the physical from the intangible. For example, in organizational terms, restructuring, developing business processes, implementing technological systems are the equivalent of physical surgery. Recently I discovered that a farmer I know had lost his thumb in an accident – surgeons had replaced his thumb with his big toe. Think about it – they amputated the toe. He apparently now jokes that his is the only thumb that has kicked a dog.

The organizational equivalent of this amazing surgery is reconfiguring the organisation, (reconstituting roles), or implementing new systems or processes. The reporting lines, which are the physical attributes of the organisation, are reconfigured.

My mate with the thumb operation nevertheless is recognisably the same person and similarly an organisation after restructuring may still be recognised as the same organisation, even though critical changes have taken place.

This recognisable organisational identity is formed through myriad interactions taking place over time amongst those involved in the organisation (employees, contractors, and also suppliers, customers and owners).

We tend to act as though the “physical” elements (such as structure) of an organisation are mechanical, subject to physical manipulation. Then there are some things more intangible, like culture or leadership, that operate more like the head or the heart, to guide the organisation in a rational sense, or inspire the organisation in an emotional sense.

I think that in effect, when we think this way (which is very common), we are treating the organisation as though it had the characteristics of an individual human being – a mind, a heart, and the ability to perform physical actions. But an organisation, made up of myriad individuals interacting with each other, is not actually the same as an individual human being.

An organisation is made up of many individuals each with human consciousness, intentions and choice, unlike the parts of an individual human being such as the heart, brain and hands. The heart, hands and brain do not in and of themselves have human consciousness except as part of a human being.

So, to say that an organisation is like a human being is true only to a very limited extent. In thinking about organisations, we have to look outside our common thinking about individual humans, because organisations are not actually like individual human beings. They are more like patterns of interaction that arise over the course of myriad relationships and conversations amongst human beings. These patterns can become entrenched (or even stuck), but are ever changing.

This means that you cannot undertake surgery on your organisation as though it were a physical human body. This would be like doing a heart operation in which the ventricles, aorta and arteries are saying “Wait, I don’t agree with your diagnosis,” or “Cutting me will lead to downstream problems,” or “I refuse to participate in this heart operation.” No wonder 75% of many change interventions are classified as failures when they treat organisations as physical beings.

Going back to my tennis experience, it was inspiring to see people 20 and 30 or more years older than me running around on a tennis court – some with the help of surgical intervention. Not everyone is able to do this and I hope circumstances enable me to have this privilege.

As a change leader, you are not a surgeon dealing with arteries and ventricles, knees or hips. Although you have positional power and authority, you are a human being dealing with other human beings who work in your organisation. While knees and hips don’t “talk back,” or have their own opinions, your people do.

So, you can’t treat them as though you are a surgeon working with the engineering of the human body. Nor are you dealing with some spiritual “life force.” You are dealing with an organisation consisting of large numbers of people engaged in myriad interactions with each other, which take place in the course of performing the work of the organisation.

You aren’t physically involved in most of the interactions that take place in your organisation, no matter how senior you are – you wouldn’t have time in the best of circumstances. Therefore, to be effective in helping your organisation to change, the most fruitful thing you can do is to be an active participant in the organisational interactions hat you are a part of – to notice the interactions going on in the human world of the organisation around you and take them seriously. This means reflecting on what the overall patterns are, acting with intention in your interactions with others and adjusting your responses as you go.

You can’t design these interactions the way a surgeon can plan an operation to improve your knee or replace your hip.

Hot Off the changingorganisations Blog

Have you come across the term "self-organisation?" Self-organisation is a technical term in complexity theory that is somewhat counter-intuitive in its meaning. It does not mean that managers can let "anything go" or relax constraints to allow emergence to happen. Nor does it refer to a "bottom up" rather than "top down" process.

When we say that human interaction is self-organising, what is meant is that ALL human interaction occurs through local interaction in the absence of a central blueprint or plan. The term "local" is used here in a particular sense, which is that all humans interact with a relatively small number of others, not with the whole population. And in this sense, managers are engaged in local interaction with a relatively small number of others, in spite of the power they have been delegated.

This distinction has been hot on the blog this month, and you can find out more at

New Website

Well, the new website is nearly ready to go. We are just finalising the URL addresses. In the meantime, as a Stephen’s Standpoint subscriber, you can preview the new site at


Summer has been a long time coming here in Wellington, but we have finally been able to bring in our hay. For me this represents a significant and enjoyable milestone of the year as we approach the harvest season. Interestingly, the hay is cut regardless of whether as humans we are emotionally prepared, have everything organised, or it’s convenient.

As far as dates go, it doesn’t even seem to relate to any contractual expectations you might have with those doing the mowing, turning and baling. A dismal failure from a project management point of view (as a client anyway).

It seems to be over to how fast other properties went, some political elements (i.e. who is favoured), the weather, and which horse won the gallops on the weekend.

So, it’s a lesson in acceptance of the forces of nature. Nevertheless, it’s really fun gathering up the bales and putting them in the shed, and knowing you are preparing well for the winter. There’s also the sense of community in helping each other to gather in the hay.

Ooh, I must have been a squirrel in a previous life!


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