A group understanding business differently by considering opposing metaphors

The Machine and the Bonfire

Two Ways of Seeing Your Business

The standard way of doing business in our culture is something like a machine. A complex, sometimes wonderful, wiz-bang machine, but still a machine. We define business structures – policies, procedures, roles – to predictably produce a certain product or outcome. We tend to believe that if we just get our systems right, then everything will work right. If people just do their jobs as defined, then everything will be good. If we just plan correctly, then we’ll be able to control outcomes.

Great idea. Problem is that it’s not real. There’s no such thing as getting the machine just right, particularly when we are faced with demands of innovation and fast-paced change.

Business as a machine is a well-documented metaphor and its limitations also discussed. However, until we have a new metaphor or a new way of being in our businesses, it’s very hard to leave the old way behind. Despite its obvious power, we see the limitations of the machine mindset. We may want to do something new or more effective, but without an idea of what’s next, we will likely get up and do what we’ve done before.


Small business and the machine

The bible of entrepreneurship for years has been “The E Myth” by Michael Gerber. Michael teaches entrepreneurs the art of the machine metaphor to bring order to the chaos of small business. He uses McDonald’s as the gold standard for running a small business, because McDonald’s has take the machine metaphor to its fullest expression, defining every aspect of the business so that people’s individuality is unnecessary and even unwanted. This is the pathway to freedom for the entrepreneur, according to Michael Gerber and our dominant culture.

Although I don’t agree with his model, he has provided a huge service to entrepreneurs. Chaos can dominate entrepreneurs’ lives, so defining structure, policies, and roles can really make life and business better. However, the machine model also limits flexibility, creativity, community, authentic relationships, and innovative action. The machine model is meant to produce predictability and control, which sounds good. The problem is that the our lives and our world continually stresses and breaks our beautifully designed machines.

So, the entrepreneur is in the position of constant fixing and tinkering with the machine, essentially working against the natural flow of life. Our need to control outcomes through perfecting our machines excludes our humanity, as well as the humanity of our employees and customers. The effect of that is that we exclude our most creative, flexible, loving, beautiful, intelligent, and meaningful parts of ourselves. Our businesses and our world is diminished because of this.

Tinkering and Fixing

Due to the machine metaphor, many entrepreneurs believe that if they just get the system right, then everything will just work. We believe that if there are problems, it’s because the control systems are flawed. So, we work harder to get everything just right. We get frustrated. We problem solve. We have meetings to assess, identify, strategize and go running forth to execute wonderful plans to perfect our machines and keep people fitting within their ill-fitting roles.

We tinker and fuss. We assume that if we’re not getting the results we want, then we need to update employee handbook rules on customer service and cleanliness. We rant that if employees just did their jobs, we’d be doing great. If people just fit themselves into the machine, we’d be fine. Well, that only works so well.

A new metaphor – The Bonfire

Leaders are reaching for new ways to accommodate shifting business landscapes, as well as social norms and expectations. There’s more talk about building community, sustainability, people-centered design, and authenticity. However, a lot of this shift is happening within the machine mentality. We are struggling to bring our humanity into the workplace. A new metaphor would help us build businesses and organizations that truly allowed our humanity in and to flourish.

I offer a bonfire as a new metaphor for creating and running a business.

At a bonfire, the fire is in the middle of a circle of people, all of whom are enjoying the warmth and the spectacle of the scene. People are free to move around the circle or move further away if the heat gets too intense. There’s likely one or two people most engaged in building and tending the fire, while there are others that come and go. There are people who bring extra wood or the marshmallows and chocolate for s’mores. Somebody pulls out the guitar and a few people sing along. Strangers are welcomed into the circle, given a place to be and made at home. Perhaps they bring ideas or resources to improve everyone’s experience. Everyone has a different perspective around the fire, seeing something different and unique. People enjoy the fire, want it to be healthy, and will pitch in to do what needs to be done to help it grow.


Power of Metaphors

We all look at our lives through a certain point of view that basically answers some big questions for us.

  • Who am I? What am I to do?
  • Who are others? What are they to do?
  • What is the business? What is it to do?

Let’s look at these questions through the lens of our metaphors.

Who am I? What am I to do?

In the machine metaphor, I (as the entrepreneur) am the creator of the machine. I am the one who is responsible for designing and controlling all of the ins and outs of this contraption that does my work in the world. I am to make sure that it is designed well, and continues to run well. If it’s not running right, it is my job to fix it and to get all the pieces back into place.

In our bonfire metaphor, I (as the entrepreneur) am tending the growth of this giant fire. I am watching, tending, and looking for what it needs. I look to others to provide help when I need it, but I see that there are others around me who are also watching and seeing what needs there are. I am not solely responsible for the growth or health of this fire. When I see someone doing something destructive to the blaze, like shifting wood in unhelpful ways, I ask them to stop and reconsider their actions, but for the most part, people are helping while enjoying the warmth, s’mores and music. I see that there is time for me to enjoy the warmth, as well.

Who are others? What are they to do?

Others are the ones who are here to be a part of the machine. They may be customers, who provide input or they are cogs within the machine to help create outputs. They all have their roles, they know what to do and they are expected to do it. They do not need to be providing ideas, unless it is to improve their role. If they start messing with other parts of the machine, then chaos may take over. I am the one who decides how the machine is made, not them.

Others at the bonfire are there to enjoy the fire, as well as help tend, nurture and grow that fire. If they see a dead spot on the other side from my vantage point, they can tell me or others around them so that the problem is addressed. They are encouraged to bring their own gifts to the circle to share with everyone, such as their music and their s’mores. They are free to be close in or further away. They can bring more firewood, find driftwood pieces to make benches, arrange the beach chairs to be more comfortable and thoughtfully placed. They can contribute in ways that serve the whole and they are open to hearing contrasting ideas of what should be done. Everyone wants the fire to be healthy and they contribute in collaborative ways.

What is the business? What is it to do?

The machine is meant to make consistent, predictable and profitable outputs with an efficient amount of work. It is meant to satisfy customers’ requirements, as well as meet the demands of employees, management and ownership. It is transactional in nature, so as long as it meets the contractual elements of the agreement between customer and business, it’s job is done.

The bonfire is meant to create warmth and a place of gathering for people to come be together. The people who gather create the quality of their experience collaboratively, while the fire provides the warmth and the invitation for others to join. The interaction between the fire and the people present last as long as the people decide it lasts, individually. The relationship is open-ended, with warmth freely given.

Where and who am I in relationships to the business?

I am inside the machine, tinkering and getting all the pieces to keep moving well. There’s always more to do, so I spend most of my time, if not all of my time inside the machine, keeping it all going.

I am on the edge of the fire, along with everyone else. We are all facing the fire, doing different things. I am, of course, more fascinated and engaged than most of the others, but they don’t mind helping when I ask them to do something to keep the fire bright and healthy. I am on the outside, with everyone else, because to be inside would hurt me. I’d burn up and die, obviously. So, I’m on the outside, supporting and encouraging my fire to live its own wild life.