It’s far easier to think of an enterprise as a kit of parts than as a dynamic confluence of processes.
While most ordinary people wouldn’t know Descartes from a shopping cart, if you asked them to describe the world in a sentence, they would most likely play back his version instead of Whitehead’s. Let’s face it: Seeing ourselves as material beings, in a world made up of stable, visible objects, is much easier than imagining ourselves in one of the far less tangible, ever-changing, and interrelated processes.
The same applies to business. It’s far easier to think of an enterprise as a kit of parts than as a dynamic confluence of processes. Large, vertically integrated organizations are like a bundle of separate, specialized streams of activity with only as much interrelatedness as is deemed necessary by their siloed inhabitants. Most of the time they’d rather not speak to each other, let alone admit that they are in any way related.
This Cartesian view of the organization has been reinforced by the product-centric legacy of the last 200 years of industrialization. When you think of Toyota, you don’t think of robotic assembly; you think of cars. When you think of Nestlé, you don’t think of artesian wells; you think of bottled water. Yet it is precisely this attitude that has gotten us and our organizations into much of the post-industrial trouble that we’re in.
Take bottled water, for instance. If you think of it as an object, it’s easy to sleep at night after you’ve bought it, consumed it, and thrown it away. But if you think of it as a process, sleep is a little more difficult. It begins as privatized access to fresh water – which most of us would consider a public asset – bought for millionths of a cent per liter. It is shipped to bottling facilities, wrapped in plastic, and sold back to consumers for $2–3 per liter. Meeting America’s demand for bottled water requires 17 million barrels of oil annually – not including the oil required for shipping. Of the 167 bottles used by the average American every year, only 38 are recycled. The rest end up in landfill, in waterways, and in the ever-expanding, 7.7 million square-mile Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch.
Seen this way, it’s not hard to view a bottle of water as a “moment” occurring at the nexus of many interrelated processes, from macro to micro, historic to contemporary, organic to inorganic, and back again. From millions of years of hydro-geological and fossil fuel formation to the industrial processes of extraction, the construction, and operation of bottling facilities, the manufacture and operation of heavy equipment and trucks used for extraction and shipping, the refinement of the oil used to make the bottles and fuel the trucks and heavy equipment, the burning of that fuel and its emission as CO2 into the atmosphere, the resulting climate change, the collection and disposal of used containers, and the fatal ingestion of discarded plastic by fish and fowl: Suddenly the simple notion of the bottle as a discreet, independent object gives way to a much more complex picture, one that is literally dangerous to consider in Cartesian terms.
Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue.
Will Novosedlik is AVP. head of growth partnerships at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.