Interview with Jurgen Appelo

#Workout and Intertwingled were recently featured in Amazon’s Hot New Releases together. Being a creative networker, Jurgen Appelo suggested we interview each other. I enjoyed reading his book, wrote a review, and asked him three questions.

1. In #Workout, you explain that organizations are best understood as complex adaptive systems. I agree. But this perspective isn’t often reflected in management practices. Why do you think the perception of organizations as machines is so persistent?

My best guess is that the type of organizations, as we see them today, emerged during the industrial revolution. Revolutional change was achieved by the introduction of machines. Some people had to design the machines and work systems and other people had to operate and work in them. This created a chism between thinkers and doers, or the white collars and the blue collars. Over time, more people have moved from doing/operating to creating/thinking. But sadly, the view of the organization as a machine hasn’t changed at the same pace.

2. Your discussion of management metrics is refreshingly honest. After noting “There is no right mix of metrics that will result in an optimization of the whole; so don’t even try,” you conclude “The solution is for all individuals in the organization to have their own metrics.” Can you elaborate?

I believe measurement is simply a more precise way of observing people and their environment. Everyone needs to do this with their own eyes. Professional athletes measure themselves constantly. And they all have coaches, often assigned by sports federations (management), who assist the athletes with their self-measurement. But few sports managers and coaches would say, “Your target is this amount of points, miles, meters, or seconds. If you make it, you get a bonus; if you don’t make it, we fire you.” Because obviously, performance depends on health, the weather, the competion, the environment, and much more. When everyone does badly, you can still be the best, despite failing your targets. And vice versa.

3. You state that “excessive greed might be the biggest problem in free markets.” Can we improve our systems of business and government to address this wicked problem?

Yes. But we’ll have to face the fact that regulation often lags years behind good practice. In legislation around the world, it is often assumed that the purpose of a business is to make money for shareholders. Fortunately, we see lots of people and movements world-wide who don’t agree with this, but they have to swim against the tide. However, the more examples we have of businesses such as Amazon, Southwest Airlines and Whole Foods Market, who successfully say, “it’s not only about shareholders,” the better the chance that law-makers will start modernizing corporate laws. We’ll have to lead by example. Politicians are usually followers, not leaders.

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