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When a team or a business unit is called a well-oiled machine, that’s a good thing, right? I think most of us would say “yes” to that, as it means we have worked the bugs out of the system, things are moving as they should, and everything is moving forward in the way that it was designed. After all, our customers count on us to deliver on the goals and objectives they set forth. 

The term “well-oiled machine” denotes reliability, dependability, and consistency. These are all good things. But sometimes a well-oiled machine means we haven’t taken the time to consider our ability to change, grow, and/or innovate.

In Harvard Business Review’s Cultural Competency Model, the culture of learning and innovation is often the hardest to build. To explain how they describe it, a culture of learning is characterized by exploration, expansiveness, and creativity. Work environments are inventive and open-minded places where people spark new ideas and explore alternatives. Employees are united by curiosity and leaders emphasize innovation, knowledge, and adventure.

I’m sure you can see why that environment—the place where it is safe to fail, and new idea generation is a natural part of the work cycle are rarely experienced within well-oiled machines.  A well-oiled machine is more akin to cultures of safety and order:


This culture is defined by planning, caution, and preparedness. Work environments are predictable places where people are risk-conscious and think things through carefully. Employees are united by a desire to feel protected and anticipate change; leaders emphasize being realistic and plan ahead.


This culture is focused on respect, structure, and shared norms. Work environments are methodical places where people tend to play by the rules and want to fit in. Employees are united by cooperation; leaders emphasize shared procedures and time-honored customs.

This idea is perpetuated in “Leadership and the Well-Oiled Machine” by Thomas J. Lee.  Here’s a direct quote from his work:

“What you need are people who think for themselves, who dream, who appreciate and act on core principles, who can adapt to ever-changing circumstances, who will take the initiative to do what's necessary and right in a situation that you never imagined. That takes leadership. Your leadership. The real work of leadership, which is a matter of thought, word, and deed.”

The challenge is out there for all of us – how do we maintain the well-oiled machine, while innovating and growing? I think we’ll find that the answer is found in our people, our diversity, and in our leaders, and the future talent pool that we are all growing. People often want to feel like more than a cog in the wheel—they like the energy and excitement that comes from the new and the unexplored. It is up to all of us to champion that talent and to harness the power that comes from their ideas and exploration. They will help us continuously reinvent the well-oiled machine.