How often have you heard someone pay tribute to a business, or to any other organization, by calling it "a well-oiled machine"?
Fairly often, I'm guessing. As metaphors go, it's an oldie but goodie.
You hear it whenever costs come in under budget, whenever something is finished ahead of deadline, whenever a widget's quality clears a standard.
Little wonder. We all appreciate reliability and predictability. We want to depend on things. So we're happy when a promise becomes its own reality. When that happens consistently, we reach for the metaphors. Yes, it sure does look like a well-oiled machine.
But should that apply to all companies and all organizations? Should every enterprise be run like a machine?
Color me skeptical. Maybe I am making too much of a few words, but hear me out.
Machines—even well-oiled machines—are just things. Things can do only what they are intended, built, and programmed to do. Their limits are thus the limits of their design, their technology, their maintenance, and their energy.
Mere machines cannot imagine anything else, anything different. They cannot develop anything new. They cannot notice and wonder. Apart from the most sophisticated diagnostic machines in hospitals and laboratories and the like, few can even identify and solve a problem.
By extension, an organization that runs like a proverbial well-oiled machine is an organization that is doing the same thing in the same way, over and over, every day. For companies that do that, the metaphor is apt. They should indeed strive to operate like a well-oiled machine.
But for organizations that need to grow, for organizations that need to do and be more tomorrow than they are today, the metaphor is inapt. If you want your team to stretch itself, to innovate, to create, to define tomorrow, then you need more than the social equivalent of gears, wires, and lubricant. You need something more and better than a machine, however well-oiled it may be.
What you need are people who think for themselves, who dream, who appreciate and act on core principles, who can adapt to ever-changing circumstances, who will take the initiative to do what's necessary and right in a situation that you never imagined.
That takes leadership. Your leadership. The real work of leadership, which is a matter of thought, word, and deed. Yours.