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December 28, 2015

What if we nailed it, but screwed up?

So we’re trying to move this huge locomotive called the organization, towards a state of humanization. That’s good. In fact, that’s nothing less than fantastic. We need to move organizations out of the industrial age mindset, and into the age of people.

To that end, a lot of theories, experiments and new ways of organizing ourselves, have come to light.

Take motivational theory for example,”AMP theory” from the book Drive (this is my own association term, so I remember it correctly. As in “it amplifies”). Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. Then there’s Teresa Amabiles Progress Principle.

Somewhere else in this sphere, are new ways of organizing ourselves in our workplaces, to counter the typical hierachical organization. HolacracyOpen enterprisesAgile Enterprises.

They’re all good answers to a challenge I think do need to be addressed.

But what if we’re using screws for what needs to be nailed ? I think we need to repurpose.

Bear with me as I think out loud for a moment.

  • What if the hierarchy isn’t actually the problem ? What if the hierarchy as such is actually a sensemaker and makes people feel safe, because they can identify others and themselves in it ?
  • What if there’s nothing wrong with having leaders, because leaders help focus the effort ?
  • What if we have what we need to humanize organizations today, without the extreme radicality of transforming a huge business into a holacracy ?

The idea isn’t actually that new, and it isn’t that radical. It’s about using what we have, in other ways then the existing. It’s about operationalizing more easily. And it’s about respecting the basic conditions of how people work, to make the organization run better. Because in the end, people will be performing the actual work. It’s astonishing that we tend to kind of forget that simple matter when moving just a couple of levels up the ladder.

My idea is this: Keep the hierarchy, and keep the leaders. But focus on how they enable people to learn and unlearn.

  • This means the hierarchy can stay, but primarily for identification purposes. Perhaps then in time it then makes sense to not be a hierarchy, but a network ?
  • This means you don’t alternate between an operational and a developmental state. You alternate between and execution/learning state.
  • This means leaders don’t get to be bossy. They get to create frameworks, remove roadblocks (yes, like the old theory of servant leaders suggested), and first and foremost: Facilitate learning and execution.

I’m guessing you’re a bit underwhelmed right now. This was not the revolution you were expecting ?

That’s the point.

  • However you twist and turn it, businesses are owned by someone. That owner expects the business to make money. Traditionally, money means less people focus.
  • Right now, someone has power. Powerpeople don’t like losing power. But they love when their business makes dollars and make them look good.
  • Right now, very few people are able to dismantle their own positions in the hierarchy. Leaders (or managers) probably least of all, as there are a lot of related issues like saving face, social status, etc.
  • Right now, workers are, to a large degree, disengaged, and are being blocked from doing the work they were hired to do.

So the softer and more edible road is to change what we have, enough that it makes a difference, but not so much that you choke on it. In essence not having to rely so much on change management, it’s not as if that’s being practiced in abundance anyway, but making change the mentally default state that it in reality already is ? But not only that, enabling people to navigate in that environment, and learn from it.

What if workers were switching between the learning/executing state instead ? Where optimal conditions for learning/unlearning could be implemented, so the creative use of knowledge could create innovative solutions to the challenges we face ? Where action and execution were the results of innovative use of what we just learned.

And what if leaders were not micromanagers looking people over their shoulders to constantly “make them do what they had to”, but people who facilitated learning/unlearning, removed roadblocks, and had the same reciprocal accountability as every other employee ? Not because you would get punished as a leader otherwise, but because when you have a meaningful relation, accountability runs both ways.

How about if the owners made money also from lowering the churn rate, lowering stress related illness, reducing sickdays, increasing public perception of the company ?

We already have what we need to succeed. But we need to rethink how we use what we have. We need to repurpose the use of our technologies. Yes, also the bit-based technology, but in particular the humanbased technology.

And by repurposing into a learning/executing mindset where leaders let go of their whips, and workers get to work freely, we actually get what we need to flourish:

  • Autonomy. From redefining or even removing the boundaries within which we work.
  • Mastery. From being able to optimally learn what we need to learn, to make creative use of what we know, and improve on both the knowledge and solutions we generate from it.
  • Purpose. From knowing and facing our challenges in a much more robust and beneficial way.
  • Progress. From being able to execute and solve challenges without the fear of losing or being punished, based on what we’ve learned.

Personally, I don’t think it will necessarily be switching out the container that will make winning organizations. I think it’s the organization with the most people who can make unhindered creative use of their knowledge, as a way to execute each and every day, so progress is made in a meaningful way.

Don’t uproot. Repurpose.

Or is this way of thinking not the way forward ? It might not be. It might be too trivial. But I think we tend to forget the very basic premises of our world, as we turn everything into academia in our hunt for standing out. We shouldn’t forget the basics. I have a hunch that because we forgot the basics, that’s where the potential is.

In any case, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Picture by Giulia Forsythe.


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