Don’t forget the humans: Keeping the organisational soul in its right place

Good old Isaac Newton. He gave us such a simple way to understand the universe. It is made up of separate things. I am me; you are you; and that phone box over there is a separate thing from the person inside it calling a taxi. A universe of separate things that interact with each other.

It works. And it’s been rather useful. It’s put people on the moon and helped us understand the most complex trick shots in snooker.

We liked it so much that we made things into things that were nothing like things in the first place. Like companies. Some people work on an idea together, making something and getting it out into the world. It’s a human endeavour, an unfolding story. Then as if by magic, some pieces of paper are signed and filed at a special building in South Wales and the story has become an incorporated company.

It’s now a thing. An entity. In our minds it’s separate in the universe from the very people who are writing and acting out the story together. And separate from all the other companies. Neat picket fences around separate companies with individual balance sheets. Quite a mind boggling abstraction when you think about it.

We all go along with the story that a company is a separate thing in the universe which can interact with other things. It can hire people, fire them, buy, sell and own stuff. It can be negligent, discriminate and break laws. It can enter into disputes and be hated.

We go along with it even though we know a company can do none of those things. What’s there to hate? A certificate of incorporation in a filing cabinet? No. We know it’s people acting out the story who hire, fire, buy, sell and break laws. But why do we choose to go along with it?

Simple. Because it works. And it’s been rather useful. It gave us Google, and those fancy kitchen bins which open when you wave your hand in front of them. Products! Services! Scale! Growth! Prosperity! Sweatshops! (Shhh don’t mention the sweatshops). Never again need we touch a bin with hand or foot while cooking. Hygiene beyond our wildest dreams. And Cillit-Bang for when things are filthy!

But let’s get post-modern. Business isn’t all about growth and hi-tech bins. The modern world needs purpose. Companies must have a purpose, we are told. A point beyond making money for its own sake. Without purpose, the millennials won’t ‘engage’. And who will man the call centre then, huh?

So we upgrade the myth. Not only is a company a separate thing. That’s not enough. It now has a soul of its own too. With an intent. A purpose. And values listed on the back of its employee’s identity cards. The company has a purpose and values all of its own, guiding behaviour and direction.

That’s not the end of it. Not only is the company a separate thing with a soul. We’re told it evolves like an organism, independently of the humans. Sometimes there’s an empty seat at the table in strategy meetings to represent the soul of this mythical being. The people ‘listen’ to where it wants to go. They diminish their own, meagre, human agency to serve the soul of the company instead, lest you be scolded for acting from your own ego.

Why? Because it works. And it’s rather useful. It encourages the deployment of collective intelligence and collaboration in service of something higher than self. It makes work meaningful and creates worthwhile value in the world.

But I’m going to make the case for not getting lost in our abstractions about the universe. Especially companies. And there’s one simple reason why.

The souls of real, live human beings are more important than the fictional soul of a fictional company.

By all means use the metaphor of a company being a distinct thing in the universe with its own evolving soul. Use it to draw people together to serve something meaningful. But don’t get attached to it. Don’t for one second believe it’s real.

Human beings with our complex and potent cocktails of feelings and needs are what matters. What matters is understanding these individual souls and marvelling at their deep interdependence and connection to each other. Paradoxically separate and whole all at once.

All human actions are simply us trying to meet our needs in the only ways we know how. Drinking two glasses of Malbec might be a strategy to meet a need for comfort. Or a strategy to counter loneliness — for better or worse.

Sometimes a need is so big and consuming the strategy to meet it takes the form of a large human endeavour which will require many, many actors to take part. The best we can do is to understand why it started and by who. What was their need? What was their idea to meet the need? What part of meeting that need is meaningful to me? What help do they need and what will I offer? What needs will I meet outside this endeavour so I can be fulfilled too? What help do I need? And so on. These questions are the starting point for a more human form of collaboration.

Let’s hold our stories of soulful organisations lightly. Never forget that the company, underneath it all, is just a story. Use the metaphor when it serves what really matters: the interconnected network of seven billion human souls, all trying to meet their needs.

Tom Nixon is researching for a forthcoming book on the role of vision and passion in realising the ideas of entrepreneurs and founders. He’d love to hear your story.