The Unbearable Lightness of Wellbeing
Counterintuitively, I will start with my contention that organisations have ‘weight’ with all its attendant positives and negatives. In examining the proposition, it’s necessary to define our terms, even though they are highly conceptual.
We can easily imagine, on the one hand, a young girl skipping through the neighbourhood on her skateboard. Nimble and agile, she uses her weight to guide herself around people, and objects and along the path to her destination where she pulls up, picks up the skateboard and walks inside. Conversely, a large train full of people travelling through the countryside at speed takes a long time to slow down. The familiar movie scenario, with a car stuck on a railway crossing, is scary because we know the train can’t stop.
Organisational Weight and The Number of Employees
One of the most visible signs of ‘organisational weight’ is the number of employees. As Hamel 2011, notes, employees need to be managed and in large numbers of employees there will be hundreds of employees in management-related functions, such as finance, human resources, and planning. Their job is to keep the organization from collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.
Layers of management become a hierarchy and the typical management hierarchy increases the risk of large, calamitous decisions. As decisions get bigger, the ranks of those able to challenge the decision-maker get smaller. Hubris, myopia, and naïveté can lead to bad judgment at any level, but the danger is greatest when the decision-maker’s power is, for all purposes, incontestable. Give someone kinglike authority, and sooner or later there will be a royal screwup.
Another element of ‘weight’ is tradition. Organizations can get themselves bogged down in the way things have always been done. Those activities which may have been cutting edge fifty to a hundred years ago become a millstone around the neck of innovation. It is true, however, that to break free of stifling tradition requires recognition first and then energy to lose some of that weight because the ‘comfort food’ of what we know is very appealing and a hard habit to shake.
Another level of ‘weight’ is imposed by bureaucracy. Historically, a bureaucracy was a government administration managed by the creation of departments staffed with non-elected officials. Today, bureaucracy refers to the administrative system governing any large institution, either public or private. However, it is the public administration of many jurisdictions and sub-jurisdictions that exemplifies our common understanding of bureaucracy which is characterized by highly regulated processes and procedures that slow decision-making. What might appear as simple decisions have to wend their way through various departments and at each step momentum is lost.
Weight as Value
This is not to say that some elements of ‘weight’ have genuine value and can keep us grounded. Large complex undertakings require heavy-duty organizations and a start-up based in a WeWork scenario could not build a Dreamliner or an A380. It took NASA 10 years of ongoing development to put a man on the moon. They are valid large heavy-duty organisations. But even within these large bodies, smaller entities actually carried on in a ‘lightweight’ manner to achieve specific goals. It is also worthwhile observing that this model is best suited to single large-scale focused projects. After the Apollo programs, NASA had to retrench thousands of workers and re-orient itself.
To return to the title, it is when an organization achieves its optimal ‘lightness’ that it will succeed and the people within it will be at their most connected and most productive and therefore experience a sense of well-being that will contribute to the organization's success.
Gary Hamel, 2011, ‘First, Let’s Fire All the Managers’, Harvard Business Review. Accessed: https://hbr.org/2011/12/first-lets-fire-all-the-managers
Associate Professor Tom O’Connor is the Associate Postgraduate Program Director (Melbourne) and Manager of Special Projects in the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor.