Carol Linneaus, formerly Carl von Linne, developed the Latin binomial nomenclature system to give globally accepted names (Homo sapiens–Genus and species, respectively) to known life forms. In doing so he did a great service to the study of life by creating the basis of a classification system to organize the enormous diversity of life–even more enormous than he knew at the time, and now there are many levels to the classification system. In order to study complex systems, we use classification as one means to organize the subject matter into groups and relationships. This system can show that A is not like B; B is not like C and at the next level of comparison it can show that A is more like B than A is like C. In doing so, we do not have to treat each living organism as a unique specimen, but we can use comparisons to categorize two different specimens as the same or different species, for example. Simpler and dangerous.
The workplace is complex too. So like Carl von Linne named and organized everything for the purpose of simplicity, we have done the same in the workplace–Intern, Assistant level 1, Junior Manager, Vice President, Chief-Executive-Officer, Associate Senior Manager to the Director. In each organization these names have particular meanings that are used to help us interface with others based upon what we know about their classification. Based on their title we immediately know something about them and their relationship to other titles, and to us. Simpler and dangerous.
What makes a species? Are tigers (Panthera tigris) a different species than lions (Panthera leo), buffalo (Bison bison) a different species than cattle (Bos taurus)? By name they are. Functionally, they are–they do not naturally reproduce viable offspring. But put them in a zoo or in a barnyard, and v’walla! Liger and Beefalo. In plants this kind of inter-species mating happens more often than in animals–resulting in new species. (Another whole post on evolution is creeping in.)
The classification system of life continues to change as we learn new information. von Linne only had physical characteristics to lump, split and relate different life forms and his knowledge set was relatively small. With genomics and other technologies we have so much more information that we find some of these arrangements were not so correct, and we keep adding new life forms that some aspect of the classification system is always in flux. Some discoveries turn our understanding of life totally upside down.
Our favorite pet, Canis lupus familiaris, is now considered a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupis) and not separate from the wild ancestor. All domestic dogs (and gray wolves) are the same species yet we know that each and every one of our pooches has a unique personality, skill set and behaviors. Each dog has its own special diet and the veterinarian treats them as individuals. We would never consider naming every dog lupus and not a give that dog a special name that fits its personal uniqueness.
This is not a biology lesson, but there are some takeaways.
Point 1: Even though we have different titles (lions and tigers) does not mean we don’t have the ability to “work together”. We’re not talking about office canoodling–we’re talking about working together on a project team, collaborating with another department, stepping in to do some of the mundane work. Drop the titles and the role descriptions. Ever heard someone or yourself say, “I don’t do that” or “I don’t work in that space.” “That’s below/above my pay-grade”. Well guess what–you’re in the zoo now. Get together and create something new.
Point 2: We continue to learn and must adjust accordingly. Better understanding of business, of new competitors, mergers and acquisitions or changes in management philosophy can all lead to structural changes. The organizational system of old will not continue. When the classification system on which we have built our paradigm of success changes, we get pretty upset. It might sound like, “That career ladder I was on to the top just hit a dead end.” “I like who I used to report to.” “I used to know who to talk to to get things done.” “I’ve had four managers in four years.” “I like what I used to do.” Imagine if we held on so tightly to von Linne’s 18th century model in spite of all the new knowledge we gain through science and learning. The renaming of individual types of organisms or restructuring is not done without good reason, but like science, business is moving faster than it used to and changes are far more common place. Reorganization in some part of the company and periodically a total restructure are the norm.
Point 3: Each person in your organization, regardless of their title, is unique. In some workplaces, the job title is completely abolished, and this approach is not without some merit. This might be too difficult in your entire organization, but imagine if that in our relatively small world we approached every person as a unique individual, looking for their personality, knowledge, special skills and behaviors. After all, they do have different names (Jackus welcheus is a unique individual not easily lumped in the family of Chief Executus officeri). Rather than lumping a person into the associate junior manager bucket and assuming we know everything about that person, their capabilities, value and relationship to me, we should look for what makes them unique–what they can contribute and what they need from you.
Simpler and dangerous. I am not suggesting there is no value in workplace classification systems. They are very valuable for the office taxonomy. That is, they do give us some operating principles for understanding relationships, gathering some starting information about a person. However, we can fall into the trap of using the structure to do our thinking for us because it is simpler. And dangerous because we need to be at least–hopefully more–flexible than the system itself.
- We must not let titles or functional areas keep us from working together, working outside of our area, or doing work above or below our title.
- We must not expect the organizational structure to stay static. In fact, we need to learn how to make agility in changing structures a strength.
- We should never let the title define us or anyone with whom we work. Our world is not really so complex that we cannot approach each person as a unique individual.