Who’s the most important person on a ship? Peter Senge suggests it isn’t the captain but the person who designed the ship.

His point being, in terms of organizational structures that govern how we relate, leaders who operate within a structure are less important than the people who design the structure.

All organizations, of course, make adjustments to the design of their organizational structures while underway. Usually they’re pragmatic, hands on Scotty-in-the-engine-room-one-part-duct-tape-one-part-genius adaptations in response to the gap between intention and reality.

It seems particularly dangerous, in an era defined by constant change, to view the design of an organization as a one shot deal, like building a ship, that Scotty-types can then tweak along the way.

In the west our thinking tends to be “build something durable by using durable materials.” It is so completely reasonable that to challenge this self evident assumption is to invite eye rolling ridicule. You want a ship that will last? Build it out of steel, not wood.

But what if there’s a different way to think about durability and longevity?

Here’s a different metaphor. Every 20 years the wooden Jingu Shrine in Ise City Japan is completely disassembled and rebuilt. “Thanks to this system, the ancient skills of artisans and carpenters have been passed down to the present.” Preparations for the re-build take 8 years. It takes 4 years just to prepare the timber. The practice started 1300 years ago. Let me say that again. One thousand three hundred years ago, Ise City began the practice of every 20 years completely dissembling and then rebuilding their shrine.

This is my grandfather’s axe. My grandfather replaced the head. My father replaced the handle. Is this still my Grandfather’s axe? Questions about the existential identity of Grandfather’s axe makes Greek philosopher’s heads explode. To the people of Ise, it makes their temple 1300 years old.

A few of things to note:
– For the people of Ise, permanence is brought about by embracing impermanence. The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi accepts the impermanence and imperfection of things. That acceptance is the gateway out of delusion. The language of Empire is eternal language, to the point of delusion. The eternal language of Empire isn’t in keeping with the grain of the universe, the way things really are (natural rhythms of life and death), it imposes its own illusory permanence that is blind to impermanence. It’s denial is its downfall.

– Embracing impermanence doesn’t place trust in materials (the structure) but in people. (How might this be manifest in organizations?)

– Embracing impermanence means trust is placed in the process of ongoing, repeated, generative collaboration. The sacredness of the building is only important in as much as it reflects back the sacredness of the people.

– Intentional disruption and the resultant re-stabilization is preferable to unintentional decay.

Some questions:
In terms of organizational structures, who are the dismantlers and rebuilders? Yes, you need the people who function within the structure, who lead it, who make it run and do what it does. Yes, you need the tinkerers who can get you to warp speed with nothing more than duct tape. But who are the people with the guts, skill, determination and bare assed audacity to disassemble your whole ship? Scotty could do it, but he’d be the last person to actually do it. Who are the people who love the people more than the ship? Who are the people who trust the people around them enough to know it’ll get rebuilt? Who are the people who understand that the disruption and work of pulling it apart and rebuilding it is better than delusion and decay? Who questions status quo, not just bits and pieces of it, but everything, to the foundation? Who annoyingly and insistently asks, “Why?”

Find those people. You need them.