Is your team working like a well-oiled machine? Let’s start by checking out your evidence criteria.

If it was like a well-oiled machine, how would you know? What would you see or hear? And what kind of well-oiled machine would your well-oiled machine be?

Metaphors for organizations

A “well-oiled machine”, like many other metaphors, seems to be shared by many people across our culture. But from working with metaphors for many years, I know that the detail of everyone’s answers to these questions will be different. Those differences can be very revealing – and extremely useful.

I’d expect predictable outputs from predictable inputs. I’d see a sequence of similar products emerging from the machine in a regular way, perhaps on a conveyor belt. I’d hear a gentle clicking and whirring, at most: no crunching of gears or clanging of dropped metal.

Another person might have in mind a well-oiled 3D printer, making a different product every time. Again, there might be gentle clicking. Perhaps the most noticeable feature would be the interesting smell!

Before reading on, take a moment to consider your well-oiled machine. What kind is it? Does it have a size or shape? Write a couple of notes, or draw a small diagram.

And now, consider another question. What needs to be true for a well-oiled machine to be like that?

What happens first? Do the inputs need to be predictable? Where do they come from? What happens next in the process? What happens after all of that? What kind of process is this? Is anyone else involved? And where could a machine like that come from?

Considering your metaphor of “a well-oiled machine” may already be sparking some insights for you.

And, if that’s the kind of team you would like…what are three ways to get there?

  1. Work with predictable inputs, a predictable process and predictable outputs
  2. Pre-define everyone’s role in very specific detail
  3. Make sure nothing ever goes wrong!

The truth is that hardly any teams, these days, can still operate like “a well-oiled machine”. We’ve moved on from the simplicity of  the production line: we’re operating in complex, innovative environments. We can’t pre-define what’s going to happen. We don’t know what the inputs are going to be, or what we’ll need to do to move to the next stage. And whatever we plan, chances are that a Black Swan’s going to fly in from left field and send things crashing in all directions.

Mechanical metaphors are a mirage. They’re attractive, but ultimately insubstantial.

I keep on getting caught by mechanical metaphors for my own work – right down to an image of a “difference engine” taking pride of place as my laptop background because it was my metaphor for my business as I’d love it to be.

But work, teams, organisations, and business as a whole, don’t really work like that now – if they ever did.

Instead, we need to adopt new metaphors that really work: metaphors that recognise the iterative nature of the creative process; the distributed nature of modern teams; the organic nature of human beings and their response to their environments.

Given all of that, when your team becomes as you would like it to be, it’s like… what? Please share your new metaphors below!


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