Organizational causes, inspired by Aristotle

Kristian Spek

When I start a new consulting job at an organization, I like to ask people how their organization became the organization it is today. Most of the time, people start telling me about the history of their organization or the values and goals they have. People sometimes start telling me about the people who work in the organization. But I have never got an answer that fullfilled my question completely. What made organizations what they are right now? After reading ‘Die Frage nach der Technik’ written by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), I got an answer that could help me structure all the answers people gave to me.

Heidegger uses the doctrine of the four causes1 that Aristotle described, which can also be applied to organizations. The first cause is the causa materialis, the material of the organization. In organizations, people, capital and material are together forming the causa materialis. The second cause is the causa formalis, which is the shape of the organization. This is the organizational structure, the processes of an organization and the way the office rooms are organized. The third cause is the causa finalis, the goals that an organization has. These goals can be at the organizational level (f.e. mission, vision, strategy), or at the personal level (the goals you make on your own and get from your boss). The last causa is the causa efficiens, which is the activity of being an organization. It is the resultant of the other causae and added to that the activity of being an organization. The causa efficiens adds the time-factor to the equation.

What makes this theory useful? It proves that every organizations should give attention to these four levels in order to stay a healthy and balanced organization. First, an organization has to work to keep his resources healthy, especially human ones. Mark that humans should not be treated not merely as a means to an end, but at the same time as an end in itself. Second, an organization should improve his form, in order to maximize the outcome (not just output!) of an organization. Third, organizations should define their vision and their goals. It is important to align these goals in such a way that they conflict neither horizontally nor vertically. Too often I have seen managers fighting for resources because their goals conflicted with each other. Sadly, the result is that neither of them reach their goals. Fourth, organizations should have their focus on these three causae and continuously improve them. There is not such a thing as an ideal organization. Time changes things and you need to adapt to (or even initiate) these changes.

Heidegger and Aristotle make useful distinction between causations in organizations. This distinction enable us to focus on the right thing. Healthy resources require attention. This applies not only to materials, but also on your employees. You have to find high qualified developers and treat them as real craftsmen. People are able to take far more responsibility compared with the amount of responsibility organizations give to their people. The organization should be shaped in such a way, that the material (people) could reach their goal in an optimal way. A fundamental condition to execute this is a well designed mission, vision and strategy that is aligned both horizontally and vertically. Steven R. Covey writes in 'The 8th habit' that only four of the eleven people know their goals, and only two of the same eleven do actually care. Although most companies do have a mission, vision and strategy, most people cannot answer the question how their activities contribute to them. But most of all, to be committed to do all these items continuously. Agile and Lean can help with this, enabling your organization to adapt changes.

Heidegger and Aristotle are both dead, but their thoughts are still invaluable.

(1) Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 5, section 1013a

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