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Hard vs. Soft

Organizational Health

One of the many valuable concepts that Jim Collins and Jerry Porras introduced in their classic book Built to Last is something called the “Genius of the AND,” which is the antithesis of what they called the “Tyranny of the OR.” Essentially, they said that great companies are able to avoid the polarizing and exclusive choices between two ideas, and instead find a way to tap into the benefits of both. For instance, should a company be focused on short-term or long-term growth? Great companies understand that these are not exclusive endeavors, and so they find a way to do both.

When I started my career, one of the “tyrannies of the OR” that I was confronted with was the choice between the hard science of business versus the softer side. I worked for a strategic management consulting firm that saw the world almost exclusively in terms of hard business—numbers, analysis and systems. I later worked in and around a number of human resources consultants who were undoubtedly touchy-feely. They seemed disinterested in, if not downright hostile to, the bottom line realities of business, and believed that organizational life amounted to nothing but feelings and human dynamics.

I must admit that I felt equally out of place with both groups. The “hard” people saw me as a liberal arts guy in a scientific world. The “touchy-feely” folks thought I was a hard-driving business guy. And in that uncomfortable space in between is where I developed my affinity for and belief in what we now call ‘organizational health.’

OH cannot be achieved in a world that is exclusively hard or soft. It is the place where the two worlds intersect. Without one, the other doesn’t make sense.

But that doesn’t mean that everything in those worlds fits into it. Holding hands and singing songs and trust falling are just as out of place as is relying on a cost-accounting spreadsheet to decide whether or not to lay people off. The intersection between the two is that place where human behavior is relevant to performance, and where goals and numbers are meaningful in the context of serving people.

‘Hard people’ initially might be a little uncomfortable with organizational health, seeing it as too idealistic with its focus on behaviors and emotion. And ‘soft people’ might wonder if it is too practical, with everything having to tie to results and the maximizing of organizational potential. And my answer to both would be “yes,” it is both idealistic and practical, behavioral and results-driven.

My hope is that my colleagues, and people like them, who tend to see themselves as being hard or soft, will come to reject the Tyranny of the OR and embrace the Genius of the AND.