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Cats, Caterpillars and Business

Cats, Caterpillars and Business

Have you ever noticed how sensitive a cat’s fur is? Barely touch a sleeping cat and it will twitch where you touch it.  It’s purely reflex, I know, but it is something I love doing and always makes me smile. But it provides a useful lesson.

Perhaps I have been watching too much Planet Earth, but when it happened this week while our cat slept on my lap, I couldn’t help thinking about the role of hair in nature. My balding pate suggests hair is not an essential but, on these cold autumn mornings, I certainly wish I still had all mine! Slightly envious, I began to think about all the different types of hair and the other non-insulation purposes they serve.    

For instance, in the case of cats, they seem to act as an early-warning indicator, alerting the animal to potential danger. Yet you can safely stoke a cat and even find it a pleasurable experience. But it’s not the same with a caterpillar, as you know if you have ever tried to stroke one. Here the hairs act like miniscule porcupine quills and make life pretty uncomfortable. They also serve to deter potential predators from making a meal of them.

Nor is it just creatures. The wise gardener wears gloves because so many plants adopt the same strategy and tactics. Yet you also find hairs on the roots of plants and trees, where they serve a completely different purpose. Here the hairs act as a storage device or a capillary tube to collect and store moisture to nourish the plant and ensure its survival.

And there may well be other uses that I have missed. Most, however, play an essential role in safeguarding and sustaining life. Thus, while apparently insignificant, hairs are an integral part of the nervous system. So they provide a pretty good “for-the-want-of-a-nail” analogy for the role of people in business, and for considering your organisation as an organism. Just as the survival of an animal or plant depends on hairs fulfilling their function, so too the success of your organisation depends on your people.

Imagine a grand slam tennis tournament without the ball boys and ball girls. Or a football match where the groundsman had failed to mow the grass. It may not be appropriate to call your organisation a team, because it is simply too big and too complex and people may work without any knowledge of a huge number of their colleagues. But it can only operate effectively if everyone does their job properly. Every individual who fails to do the best they are capable of under the circumstances diminishes the performance of the whole organisation.

That is why you need to start thinking of your organisation as an organism too. A traditional hierarchical model is inherently inefficient. The diagram below gives an insight into why this is. It shows the effect of hierarchy on headcount assuming that each level has 7 direct reports.

Hierarchy and headcount

It is no wonder that executing strategy becomes such a difficult proposition in larger organisations! But is isn’t just strategy that is made more difficult. Day-to-day management is also harder! This is because each level has accountability for all the levels below.  This increases concern and the desire for control. In turn this increases both the amount of regulation and interference in how subordinates are allowed to do their work. Demotivating in the extreme, this negatively impacts on performance, productivity and engagement. It also increases the risk of poor decision making either because employees are likely to become more risk averse and pass the decision back up the line, slowing procedures down, or else make the expected rather than the appropriate decision for the situation.

Formulaic or shirked decision making will ultimately always harm your organisation in the long run. You need people who deal with issues on a daily basis, to be able to make the appropriate decision on the spot. That means you need to eliminate hierarchy and make your organisation more organic. As you can see from the diagram, eliminating hierarchy could, potentially, reduce your headcount from the total headcount to the incremental headcount. That, however, doesn’t mean simply making your organisation flatter. That’s still hierarchy. Rather it entails giving your people the ability to be the best they can be. That is essential for creating an organic business and is ultimately what ‘Every Individual Matters’ means.

So, if you want your organisation to be “the cat’s whiskers”, you need to understand that ‘Every Individual Matters’.

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Comments

  • what a great analogy. perhaps thats an issue for superlarge organisations, where the individual gets lost.  Also in my experience the message doesnt always get usefully passed down the heirachy sufficiently...the whiskers don't get the message down to the tail...

    • Thanks Nicola. As you may have gathered, it is something I feel pretty strongly about! 

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