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Why No One is Replaceable

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Patch Work Cuernavaca
Credit: Dominik Scherrer

Yes, that's right: people are irreplaceable. As many of us go through work life, we are exposed to the image of organizations as machines. Humans become cogwheels in large systems and when one of those wheels no longer functions or gets old,  it is replaced. And the machine starts to turn again. The problem and the good news is: Organizations are not machines and humans are not wheels.


Imagine for a moment that our planet is a big, complex company of which humanity is one of the many employees. Now imagine that one day the management of the company decides to let humanity go. There could be many good reasons to do so from a performance perspective: Humanity is eating up too many resources, is polluting other parts of the company, is creating internal fights over inequalities which sometimes results in wars, etc. Now will this planet continue to exist without its employee humanity?

Yes, of course and one might even want to make the point that the planet may do much better. However, can humanity be replaced?

No. Humanity is unique. Humanity is contributing to the planet in multiple ways through civilization, in ways that no other species of the planet is.

And similar things can be said about bees and other animals, plants, oceans, lakes and the multitude of natural phenomena on our planet. As each species is unique, it cannot be replaced. And because each human being is unique and can contribute to a company in unique ways, he or she cannot be replaced.

Does that make you feel good?

It should!


What brings this uniqueness to life is the way we interact with one another, the way we complement each other, the way we work together. Imagine a planet with only humans. Imagine a company with only marketing or IT people. Not only would this be boring but it would mean decline and eventually death.

Much has been said about how the metaphor of the organization as a machine. It comes straight out of the industrial age. New metaphors for organizations have been introduced by Gareth Morgan in his classic Images of Organization: Metaphors like the brain which highlight that organizations can learn or the image of organizations as living organisms which can grow, change and develop.

Those images give humans in organizations true value.  Yet it seems like the image of organizations as machines and humans as cogwheels inside of them remain strong images in our brains and souls.

Organizational leadership plays a key role in helping to move beyond organizations seen as machines.

Servant Leadership, Mistakes and Innovation

The role of leadership becomes key to developing an environment where diversity is not only respected but leveraged for employees to become engaged at work and for the company as a whole to have a positive impact on customers, society and the environment. Servant leadership is a term and approach developed by Robert Greenleaf. It is amazingly simple: Servant leaders provide support to their employees for them to be successful. In other words, at the center of attention in servant leadership is not the leader but the employee.

So servant leadership brings out the best in people, allows for diversity and maybe most importantly mistakes. And mistakes are those rich sources of innovation, so deeply human and often underestimated.

Here is an example from 3M: Their scientists tried to invent a very powerful glue and failed. But as they failed, they inadvertently "discovered" a weak glue which led to the production of these funny papers that you can stick on the wall and take off without destroying the wall (or the paper) and which everyone today knows under the name of Post Its.

People Development and Amazon's Mechanical Turk

By now you may guess why I am not using the term Human Resources: The term is part of the mechanical vocabulary which dehumanizes employees. Humans are people and not resources that can be used to feed a machine - like fuel, financial resources and the like.

The area that traditionally is referred to as Human Resources is in need of revisiting its processes: One of the  examples where a mechanical world view is detrimental are leadership transitions. In a mechanical world, leadership transition goes like this: Find the person with the right profile, train him or her and then go into production. However, disregarding the fact that the new boss had a predecessor who had relationships with employees, vendors, customers, the Board and other stakeholders often leads to failure and costly search processes.

Disregarding the soft factors around cultural fit between the new boss and the organization leads to similar results. The list of traps is endless and typically culminates in the phrase Everyone is replaceable which disengages your counter part by reducing him or her to a cogwheel.

An online example which is based on the paradigm of "replaceability" of people: Amazon's Mechanical Turk. It is an innovation which allows people from anywhere, at any time to perform online tasks which cannot be performed by a computer.

In a recent documentary by French Television (France 2 Envoyé Spécial), a journalist interviewed different people who use the Mechanical Turk to improve their income level or even make a living.

What impressed me was that most people interviewed had no idea about the rationale or context of the task they performed. They would e.g. compare scanned copies of two receipts and had to assess whether the receipts were identical or not. No one understood the WHY behind the task. It is a mechanical system in an online world deprived of any type of meaning as there is no human relationship involved.

Collaboration and Control

What comes next after we bid farewell to the image of organizations as machines and humans as cogwheels? What comes after we say good bye to the metaphor of "replaceability" where humans are spare parts in a tool box?

It is about accepting that neither humans nor organizations are machines, that they do not want to and do not need to be controlled. Humans search for meaning and often find it in collaborating with others.

It is through building relationships that they become creative and innovative in solving problems and finding solutions. Collaboration is the art of creating meaningful relationships at an engaging work place.

Collaboration is based on free will and is often spontaneous as is illustrated by the photograph at the beginning of this article. It shows a scene in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where people come together on the square in front of city hall to spontaneously co-create a piece of art. It is a scene of dedication, trust and humility.

Can humanity learn more from such simple scenes in order to remain part of a beautiful planet with no need to be "replaced"?



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