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Strong Organizations: A Plea

… the only way to change the world is through strong organizations. No visionary leader, no charismatic leader can change the world unless they know how to build an organization and a team around them. Whether it’s for profit, whether it’s not-for-profit, or whether it’s the public sector, the only way we’re going to organize six billion people on this globe is by building stronger and better organizations. And human beings have not evolved to the place where that’s an intuitive thing to do. We have to teach that, we have to research about it, and we have to constantly question ourselves to push that boundary further.

— Sally Blount, Dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

Sally Blount made these comments in 2010. She was being interviewed — along with two other great business school deans — by Tom Ashbrook for his radio show OnPoint. When she made those comments, the global population was just shy of 7 billion people. In the decade since, it as grown by another half a billion people.

Why We Need Strong Organizations

Here’s our challenge: Every single one of the 7+ billion people on the planet need food and a warm place to sleep. In earlier times we sustained ourselves alone or in small groups from the land and the sea. There are too many people on the planet today for that to be feasible. Most of us live in cities now and would find it beyond challenging to support ourselves directly from the land or the sea.

Photo of a large crowd of people
Photo courtesy of James Cridland via Flickr.

In response to the growing density of our global population, we have developed complex economies and social structures in which organizations of all sizes produce the goods and services that satisfy the vast array of wants and needs of the members of economy. On an individual level, our lives have evolved from the pursuit of food and shelter to the pursuit of a livelihood.

Now, this pursuit of a livelihood is a curious thing. We can’t all be entrepreneurs — the goods and services we need are complicated and intricate, requiring large ecosystems and supply chains.

Nor would we all want to be entrepreneurs. Not only do most of us prefer to work on teams larger than one, but the challenges we face as a civilization require a great many of us to be working together, solving larger problems, having a bigger impact.

Hence we need more than mom & pop shops, entrepreneurial startups, and a gig-economy.

And finally, to Sally Blount’s point, we need more than just larger organizations, we need to build stronger and better organizations.

We need workplaces where people look forward to coming to work rather than places that people dread. We need teams where everyone is rowing in the same direction, and not with people drilling holes in the boat. We need vibrant organizations and cultures, infused with energy and enthusiasm.

For too long we have accepted dysfunctional organizations as inevitable, as reality, as a cost of doing business. Cultural phenomena like Dilbert and The Office made us cringe, then made us laugh, then made a fortune for their creators.

Meanwhile, the inanity of the pointy-haired boss and the insanity of the office continue to haunt us in our daily lives. Why are they still funny? Why haven’t we learned?

It Need Not Be This Way

Organizations can be vibrant. They can be places where the energy that each member brings is amplified rather than squelched. We can create great places to work.

Let’s commit to creating stronger and better organizations. We all have a role to play. Lean in. Start by taking a look around at your colleagues. Tell yourself that you want to work with these people. (If this is not the case then you should immediately start looking for another place to work. Who you work with is way more important than the work that you do.) Wanting to work together is the absolute bedrock of a cohesive team and a vibrant organization.

Next — and this takes a degree of boldness — verbalize your desire to work together. Look someone in the eye and say, “I want to work with you.” There is no more powerful way to knit a team together. At the start of a meeting, go around the table and have everyone look each other in the eyes and say, “I want to work with you.” You’ll be amazed at the results.

Really commit. When a team wants to work together, all that remains is for the team to work out how they want to work together. Teams dynamics can seem complex, but this is not hard. Start where you are now and determine to continually improve. The best teams embark on a never-ending path of learning how to work together.

It’s funny, we don’t think twice about applying “continuous improvement” to our manufacturing and organizational processes. And yet, it rarely occurs to also strive for continuous learning and improvement in our interpersonal relationships and team dynamics. You can change that. Commit to want to work together — then make it so.

What Else?

What else can you do today — this week — to make your team and your organization a better place to work? What can you do to make your teams more cohesive and your organization more vibrant?

I wish you success.

Originally published January, 2014. Revised February 18, 2020.

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