Flip the organisation on its head...for the sake of humanity.

I recently caught up with a friend and colleague over Skype and, despite our efforts to ‘set an agenda’ for the call, we ended up geeking out about human and organisational behaviour (What? You thought geeks were only tech geeks?!), and going off (as always) on tangents that are all somehow connected and relevant to each other. You could call it organised chaos.

So, my friend is an organisational psychologist and, on one of our tangents, she brought up the 7S model. Since I knew nothing about it, I asked her to explain (I also googled it afterwards and found out it was first developed by McKinsey in the 70’s and is still current). It’s basically an organisational alignment model based on 7 interdependent factors – 3 labeled as hard elements (strategy, structure, systems) and 4 as softelements (shared values, skills, style, staff).

While I’ve always disliked this differentiation between hard and soft skills, this was the first time I actually took issue with it, for different reasons.

First. Despite hard and soft elements having the same apparent weight and on paper, they don’t for organisations. The sad reality is that most of today’s organisations act as if the hard aspects were more important than the soft ones, and prioritise their efforts accordingly - they focus on the hard elements of the business to please shareholders, while trying to make sure the soft elements keep up. But, as my friend put it, “focusing only on the structure (i.e., the hard elements) is like rearranging the seats on the Titanic to save it!”

Second. The nature of business has dramatically changed from what it was in the 70’s. The ‘human’ (or soft) elements listed in the 7S model lack a key factor to reflect today’s reality, and that is the experience. As authors Pine and Gilmore put it in their homonymous book, we’re now living in an Experience Economy. They argue that, after achieving a certain level of prosperity, attention must shift from commodities and services to experience, and that this experience is – in and of itself – a product and added value. (Note: in their 5-rung ladder representing the creation of value (i.e., the Progression of Economic Value), experience ranks fourth after commodities, goods, and services, followed by transformation).

Third. I can understand why the ‘human’ elements of business were considered soft at a time that was focused mainly on commodities, goods, and services. But we’ve been living in an experience economy for years now; and this requires a very high degree of empathy that could never - and never will - be an output of hard elements. Why else do you think companies are on a buying spree of user-centred and human-centric design consultancies? Because the old way of focusing on the hard elements is simply not enough to have a sustainable business or organisation today. (For more on the company buying sprees, read a great piece on flux and convergence by my friend Ash here.)

Fourth. Most importantly, there’s actually nothing ‘soft’ about these so-called soft elements. Think about it: they all have to do with ‘people’ – and every single organisation out there is a human enterprise, first and foremost. Without its people, an organisation has no foundation to stand on. Furthermore, they boil down to some very fundamental and basic human values – respect, integrity, responsibility, accomplishment, and generosity. In my book, these are life’s hard skills to survive in today’s world.

Here’s a thought: what do you think would happen if we flipped the 7S model on its head – to make it more relevant for the experience economy – and switched the labels so that all human elements were the hard skills, and the strategy/structure/systems the soft ones. What then?

On the one hand, it would justify opening up our organisations to hard and honest questioning about how things have been done so far, and how to fundamentally improve overall performance so as to create these seemingly mythical customer experiences. On the other, it would also bring more empathy into our organisations, making them far more humane places to spend our time. And couldn’t we all do with some more humanity in our workplaces?

Would love to hear your thoughts.