“It is experience, rather than understanding, that influences
behavior.” - Marshall McLuhan
Recently, my friend David Pu’u asked me about my vision. In
a moment of rare, uninhibited candor I said,
“I want to change
everything related to 20th century organizational purpose and structure.
I want to replace the institutions that created the problems we face now.
I no longer want to be sad because of the waste of human potential that I see
The structures that I am referring
to are not just organizational structures, but also social, moral and
ideological structures. It is important to understand that these structures are
systems of processes that affect us through our experience of them.
From the vantage point of my Circle
of Impact model, my conclusion is that ideas change, relationships change, but
the social and organizational structures that comprise the context in which we
think and relate do not change without great forces of disruption.
This is especially so as social and organizational structures disconnect Ideas (Values, Vision, Purpose and Impact) and Relationships from the processes and order of the institution. These structures are highly resistant to change, and only change when people join together around a set of common values, a shared purpose and a clear understanding of what difference their organization should make.
The Structure Lives
I have had a long standing interest
in the structure of organizations. Not the structure of the organizational
chart; but the living structure, the one that actually functions.
If an organization's
structure was a spy, it would be a double agent, both working for and against
the people of the organization.
The structure of an organization,
whether it is a bricks & mortal business or a social media business, is
designed for a purpose. Henry Ford's assembly line that made the Model T was
designed for the purpose of mass production. Facebook's platform structure is
also designed for a purpose.
A business' purpose and the purpose
of its organizational structure are not the same. The former is born out
of the values that inform its mission; the latter out of the need for order and
Marshall McLuhan said a half century
ago that "the medium is the message".
At that time, he was speaking about how the form in which a message is
delivered is a message in-and-of-itself. The form of communication is as
important as the content of the message.
The classic example from McLuhan's
era, the 1960s, is the effect of the nightly pictures of the Vietnam War.
During the dinner hour each night, we saw pictures of US aircraft dropping napalm incendiary
bombs, of piles of dead bodies, of unclothed children running from the
fires of bombings, and executions in the streets.
The visual medium of television
created an experience, whether accurately or not, which words in a newspaper or
magazines, and governmental spokespersons could not. The medium was greater
than the message in itself.
Today, the digital revolution is an
extension of this same reality. Even in a day when any photo can be
Photoshopped, pictures carry a stronger influence than words.
The medium, the
structure, the platform is the message, and always has been.
It is important to understand how
organizational structures and social media platforms affect us. They are not
neutral, but a living context which change in response to our actions.
Consider for a moment the morale in
your office today. Is everyone happy and productive? Or are there people
who are disgruntled and angry about being there.
Several years ago, in collaboration
with a global group of colleagues, an ebook of a conversation about morale in
the workplace was published called Managing Morale in a Time of Change. It is worth
reading. Without stating it, the conversation points to the impact that
organizational structure has on the people who work with it. The structure attempts to dictate identity
and behavior. To paraphrase McLuhan's
words at the beginning of this post,
the experience of working within a highly integrated corporate structure, not
the understanding of its structure, that produces issues of low morale."
The medium of structure is a message to which we must pay attention.This is true regardless of size or organizational
form, whether industrial or digital. We are influenced by the structures of the
organizations where we engage in life and work. This is also true for all
things digital and virtual,especially the form of social media platforms.
Social Media Platforms as Organizational Structures
... Facebook is a new
thing. But it thinks like an old thing. It thinks bigger is better. It’s the
old industrial mindset. The bigger it gets, the harder it will be to change
course. I’ve felt for some time that FB has about five years of relevance left
before it is replaced by multiple platforms that someone figures out how to tie
together without creating confusion. This is already happening.
Why? Because people
change, and it isn’t that they want more, they want better or different.
Facebook is changing their expectations, their behaviors, and their attitudes
towards themselves. We already see it in the proliferation of so many different
social media platforms.
Here’s where I see the
It used to be that we
individuals had to fit into the institutional structures, and Facebook is an
institutional structure, to find relevance and identity. The institution was
king, and we were simply serfs. Now, that scenario is flipped, and the
individual is king, and becoming more so, and Facebook is just an optional tool
for our use. For these platforms it is a race to relevance in a fickle
It isn’t that these
platforms are changing, people are changing by using these tools to express
themselves in way that they did not have in previous eras. They / we will gravitate
toward those platforms / tools we need right now. I find Facebook is the lowest
common denominator social media platform that provides a basic level of
interaction, but not much more. I know they are trying to add features, but the
mold / brand is set. FB is a slave to their own brand, not we to them.
The medium of social media is
changing us. It is a platform for change. And, we, just may be changing faster than the
platforms can keep up. Why is this?
What is it about social
media that makes it so appealing?
How does it touch us, touch those aspects of our lives that other structures can not?
How can we better utilize these platforms to align the Four Connecting Ideas with our relationships in the organziational structures where we live and work?
These are the questions that I find most compelling.
Some times transitions can be smooth, sometimes difficult. As a global economic community, we are in a difficult transition from the modern industrial age to what will follow.
Modern organizations share a common assumption. This is true if you are General Motors or the old Soviet Union. Efficiency is the route to an economy of scale and scope.
The problem with efficiency is not what it gives us, the ability to do more with fewer resources. The problem is what it takes from us.
Robust, sustainable cultures are those that have many competing alternatives.
I'm not here writing to advocate for the free market as many conservatives and business people do. The free market is an ideal, while inviting, it cannot exist while there are powerful institutional structures that can dictate the terms of the market. This is where we are now with the relationship that exists between Washington and Wall Street.
I'm also not here to simply denigrate governments as the overseer of efficiency on a global scale. Governments are important institutions for providing a basis for alternatives to grow and develop.
We are at a transition point because with the elevation of efficiency to its preeminent role, control over the economic and organizational systems of society must also grow.
Over the course of my lifetime, close to 60 years, I've seen the control of society grow to the point where virtually everyone of us is breaking some rule of efficiency every day.
I have been persuaded by Joseph Tainter's thesis that societies collapse when the diversity of alternatives diminish and a one-size fits all culture develops. This is the course our society has been moving along for the past 50 years.
I'm not making a political statement to say the course that the Soviet Union took should be instructive for us today. In many respects, their economy failed because they lacked alternatives. Central planning did not create a robust, sustainable society. It created one of fear, not just fear of impoverishment, but fear of those who control the institutions of society.
The United States is not the Soviet Union. Our histories and founding values are different.
What we do share is a belief in large, supra-national, global institutions guiding the course of society by persons selected by some criteria of elite status.
Whether that control is by law, or political coercion or moral condemnation, the effect is to create a culture of efficiency by removing alternatives that may fail, inconvenience some person or be financially costly.
Our society is no longer robust and sustainable because we are quickly squeezing alternative ways of doing things out of our economic system. As it has done so, it has also squeezed out the benefits of efficiency.
Is there an alternative course?
If Tainter is correct, then we are headed towards an economic collapse. If so, then alternative ways of sustaining society must be developed in parallel with our current system.
I see this, for example, in the rise of local buying initiatives. When farmers are connected personally to those who buy their produce, the relational conditions for an alternative economic culture grow. I hear more and more about bartering between people who have services to provide. And possibly, most importantly, I see it in local efforts to develop cultures of entrepreneurism that create both for-profit and non-profit organizations that provide alternative ways for local economies to function.
The Conditions for a Culture of Alternatives
For an alternative culture to develop three things are needed.
First, individual initiative.
This is what I saw a decade ago as the starting point for all leadership. Individual initiative focused upon creating impact. This initiative is about how people take personal responsibility for their lives and of their families and communities.
Second, community collaboration.
Consulting with a wide spectrum of organizations over the years I see how institutions force collaboration upon people. It is often seen as a way the old institutional barriers are being brought down. Collaboration can certainly do that, but it must come from the collaborators themselves.
Third, open culture of ideas.
All alternative approaches begin as an idea that needs to be tried. Openness to new ideas, and a willingness to test and fail with those ideas is essential in creating a culture of alternatives.
That efficiency demanded institution control by those who were designated the leaders of the system. It worked as long as the means of production was limited to the industrial plant; as long as advanced education was limited to the few who could afford it; and, as long as the means of communication consisted of the distribution of the information that leaders wanted people to know.
Today, all that has changed. In many ways, the opportunities that we have today are like a return to a pre-industrial era, or as some would call it a pre-modern time. In the past, cultures of alternatives always existed. Today, they are found where people recognized that they must develop new ways of living and working to provide for their families and community. Then, it was understood as the culture of the frontier, today, as sustainable, local cultures.
The frontier that confronts us now is a world of failing institutions. If we take the perspective of alternatives as a guide, then we'll see that all approaches have a life span. They begin, grow to maturity, and then devolve to extinction of irrelevance. We are in that third stage with the institutions of the modern age.
What will the next stage look like at maturity? It is anyone's guess. I am fairly certain, however, that we will see greater individual initiative, more collaboration and a renaissance of ideas. This is what a Culture of Alternatives will look like.
There is a shift taking place in organizations that is largely missed because of the way we conventionally think of the relationship between people and institutions.
This post is about this shift.
A place to begin is to look at the social media world. Many of us spend lots of time interacting through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Four Square, and on and on. If you are like me, you do a set of activities through them. They serve us like a tool does. We don't think of them as organizations. They are virtual places we go to do things.
With social media, we don't think of ourselves fitting into an institution structure. Yet, it is an organizational context whose mission is the social. This is not true many other organization's mission.
Think of social media as a street corner when people linger, share pictures, play music, show items in their shopping bag, then pass on by or venture off together to get a cup of coffee. These social settings are measured by the influence of who we know, who knows us, and how many are in our network of followers.
These social platforms are also businesses. They are organized just like newspapers, around the sale of ads and virtual space for people to establish a presence online. That is how they make their money. Signing up for any of these is really not much different than buying a car from a Ford dealer, a Swiffer mop Proctor & Gamble or a policy from a local insurance agent. We are buying into a set of institutional relationships that provide service, replacement parts, and financial security. The succeed best when they understand the needs and desires of people, what they want and how they want to be engaged socially.
I learn about this larger context by listening to people who are in the social media world.
Two of those people are marketing bloggers and podcasters Mitch Joel and Joseph Jaffe. I listen to them because they are asking similar questions to mine. I like the way they think and express their thoughts.
Their recent Across the Sound podcast was a discussion about Facebook's identity. It is worth an hour of your time to listen. I listened to it twice I found it so interesting.
Here's portion of my response left in the comments of both their blogs.
"Yes, Facebook is a new thing. But it thinks like an old thing. It thinks bigger is better. It’s the old industrial mindset. The bigger it gets, the harder it will be to change course. I’ve felt for some time that FB has about five years of relevance left before it is replaced by multiple platforms that someone figures out how to tie together without creating confusion. This is already happening.
Why? Because people change, and it isn’t that they want more, they want better or different. Facebook is changing their expectations, their behaviors, and their attitudes towards themselves. We already see it in the proliferation of so many different social media platforms.
Here’s where I see the shift.
It used to be that we individuals had to fit into the institutional structures, and Facebook is an institutional structure, to find relevance and identity. The institution was king, and we were simply serfs. Now, that scenario is flipped, and the individual is king, and becoming more so, and Facebook is just an optional tool for our use. For these platforms it is a race to relevance in a fickle marketplace.
It isn’t that these platforms are changing, people are changing by using these tools to express themselves in way that they did not have in previous eras. ..." (emphasis mine)
People are changing in their attitudes about institutions, and they have been slow to respond.
Historically, institutions existed and we had to fit into them. They were big, entrenched, historically significant, and we were just lone individuals. So we did what we were told, bought what we were sold, and became part of the faceless mass consumer society that served the institutions well. We join the institution. They didn't join us.
Much of that has changed during my lifetime. More than anything distrust in institutions. We no longer believe that institutions have our best interests in mine. We don't think they have our back. We view them as selfish and out of touch.
Trust and Institutions
Hugh Heclo wrote a thoughtful book called On Thinking Institutionally. It is a manifesto about the importance of institutions in our lives.
"What I think is demonstrably true is that in the last two generations or so, the normal range and frequency of human failings have presented themselves to the public in new ways, ways that possess an especially corrosive power in matters of institutional trust. To put it in other words, even if human venality and other misconduct remained constant, we have lived through a period when the betrayal of trust has become formatted in such a manner as to magnify whatever public alienation would otherwise occurred. That is what sets the last half-century apart in generating performance-based distrust."
This distrust of institutions is based on our shared belief in social trust. We want our relationships to be dignified, respectful and trustworthy. We genuine want our institutions to be trustworthy. This truth about us as human beings is one of the reasons the shit is taking place.
On a Personal Level
I see people crossing a threshold in their lives. They are turning away from the traditional industrial model of work, and are looking for something more meaningful. The emergence of technologies that do not require a traditional institutional setting is affecting how people think about themselves. Those who cross that threshold claim a new territory of independence and opportunity.
I have shown this image before. It describes what I see emerging as the expectations that people carry with them into social and institutional settings.
They want meaning in their lives. They want relationships of trust. And they want to do things that matter, every day.
This is at the heart of why Networks of Relationships are replacing Institutions. With this shift, individuals have more say-so over who they are and what they do.
The institutional relationship gets flipped. Instead of trying to fit in, we are now telling institutions that either they fit in to our life or risk obsolescence.
Facebook and these other social media platforms are not the markers of change in the 21st century. They will here and then gone.
The people who inhabit their virtual spaces are the evidence that the 21st century is different than previous eras. As individuals discover how to create a life that fulfills their desires for meaning, relationship and impact, change to institutions will come. In time we'll see trust return to institutions, not because the institutions have changed, but because we have changed. That is the shift that ultimately matters
Networks are the new management mantra. The back story to this development is the increasing importance of healthy relationships for the sustainability of organizations. I've seen this coming since the mid-1970s with the realization that relationships are the vehicle through which life works.
The science of networks is growing in sophistication and practicality. It is truly amazing to see what the data on networks can reveal. That said, networks are not the end point. They are a transition point to something else.
The first transition
If you step out, look back, you'll see that for most of the past couple millennia, organizations have been structured as hierarchies. I've posted on this before.
This hierarchies look basically like this image. There is leadership, with a level of middle and supervisory management, followed by everyone else. This is an over simplification. The point though is that the structure was organized for order, efficiency, and bottom-up accountability.
This hierarchy has been the primary form of organizational structure since human beings began to organize themselves. Some form of this hierarchy will always exist. However, it will be different.
Into the context of organizations appears a new phenomenon called a network of relationships. This is a new form of human organization that exists as connections without a designated location for these relationships. These are the kind of relationship that populate social media networks. They are virtual and intermittent, lacking comprehensiveness and continuity.
Prior to the advent of modern communication technology, the highest form of network was a local community of residents. This ancient form of the network was based on physical proximity. Think of an Amish barn raising where all of one's neighbors come to your farm to construct a building that serves a family's need for sustainability. Of course, no one talked about their local community as a network, but that is essentially what it was. The connections formed a tight bond of closeness that made it difficult for outsiders to join. Today, networks are the opposite, loose, open configurations where the social bond is in the moment.
Today, this network of relationships looks like this. It is not primarily based on living near one another, but rather being connected through common interests. The sophistication of these networks is enabled by the data mining that modern computer technology provides. Social media provides the most practical and universal means for these networks of relationships to develop.
These networks are driven by the science of connection and its viral nature. There are great possibilities for impact when a network is mobilized for a cause, when an influential hub (person) sneezes and the whole world catches a new pair of shoes, or when one person posts a video of some random guy dancing, and it is shared globally millions of times. This is the power that this form of network connection holds. This, however, is a feature of contemporary networks of relationships, and not the potential, ultimate end.
Networks are a basic infrastructure of the future of organizations. Where hierarchies are based upon position and role within an organization, networks are based upon who you know, and the ability to turn those connections into action.
To understand networks is to be aware of a couple shifts that have taken place over the past century.
The first shift is the elevation of the individual to a place of centrality in their own network of relationships. In this respect, being member of a community or an institution means less today than it did a generation ago. This individualism is a product of living in a society of choices made available to all who have the means as a consumers. Today's consumer mindset sees organizations and networks existing to meet my purposes and desires. It is social in a limited, not a comprehensive sense.
The result is that much of the emphasis on networks is focused on developing them for one's own purposes as a universal platform for marketing the individual to a world of individuals.
A second shift is the emergence of the network as a place of virtual habitation. We live online, and our relationships are online, and our identity is formed online, and our life is lived online. What the old hierarchies and old local communities offered was a physical place to live one's life and to develop the habits and practices that provided a basis for a sustainable society. There is a reason why cultures survived centuries, even millennia, without the modern technologies that we have today. These cultures of the past were communities rooted in a specific place, organized around specific traditions that helped people know how to live a life of contribution and meaning within that specific context. Many of the habits and practices that provided sustainability during the pre-modern era have eroded away as we taken up residence online. Today, everything can be done online, not requiring anything more than a wifi connection to be connected to a network of social profiles of people whom we only know as they choose to present themselves online.
The significance of this shift is seen in the difficulty that people who are not highly engaged in an online network of relationships find in dealing with people who are not used to face-to-face human contact. Frankly, they do not understand the patterns of interaction and communication that take place through social media platforms. As a result, they are missing the necessary capacity to be persons of influence who can make a difference on a global scale.
These two shifts inadequately address the fundamental desires that people have. Those desires are for our lives to be Personally Meaningful, for Happy, Healthy Relationships, Socially Fulfilling and to Make a Difference that Matters. All of this can happen through our online network of relationships. To do so requires that they become more than simply a place where I daily project my personality into noise of the online social world.
The Next Transition
These changes are why I see our current fixation on networks of relationships as a transition point between the old hierarchical structures and what comes next. What comes next is a recognition that we are more than the constructed persona of our diverse social media profiles. We are real people who have lives apart from the online world.
The next iteration of the network is for them to become more communal. By this I mean that the relationships transcend the virtual to be transformational. For this to happen, there must be a personal stake in the relationship that moves beyond what I get from it. It goes to what I give to make it work. In this respect, the next transition is a return to the old communities of proximity where being a neighbor meant that we were actively engaged in the care and sustainability of our community of common welfare.
There is a sharedness of these communities of relationships as seen here. When I speak of "leading by vacuum," it is a way of talking about how we each bring our own gifts and talents to the network of relationships, and in so doing, the network transcends the virtual to become something greater.
In this scenario, the individualism of the network is transformed into a community of relationships who share a common purpose or goal for their relationships.
For example, the Flow Ventura Global Triiibes Retreat brought together people from around the globe, most who had never physically been together before. We knew each other online. The event would never had occurred had the relationships been simply virtual and individual. Instead, over a period of time, our relationships came to increasingly matter more and more. We were more than virtual connections. We were friends whose daily interaction online mattered in how we live in the dispersed places where we reside. In other words, knowing one another online was insufficient for the sustaining of our relationships. We needed to be together in the same place, face-to-face, and side by side.
The retreat as a result was transformational for many of the participants. Many common points of interest explored in the conversations and presentations elevated the shared values that transformed our once virtual network of relationships into a community of friends whose relationships matter to one another.
Facilitating The Transition from Network to Community
For a network to transition into a genuine community requires leadership. It needs people who facilitate and coordinate the interaction that is needed to build a community of relationships. Conversations within these networks need to clarify the shared ideas of purpose and values that are a basis for a shared vision of impact, and a common commitment to share the responsibility for it. Each provides a way for the relationship to transcend superficial connection to one that is meaningful, fulfilling and makes a difference that matters.
This is the future that I see emerging. I see it as the logical evolution of networks of relationships to become more communal than social. That does not mean it will happen in every place. It does mean that it is possible. That it is a choice fueled by our desires for a certain kind of life that transcends the shallow superficiality of much of what we experience each day.
One of the questions that continues to dominate many of the conversations that I have with organizational leaders is the one related to how they should structure their business.
For example, yesterday in a conversation with a friend and client, we discussed the role of the administrative assistant in his business. Like many small businesses, this role has shifted from an essential one to a discretionary one. Many employment positions have gone away because the benefit does not match their cost.
The issue isn't whether the tasks that these people do are not valuable.
The issue is whether the role as defined is.
This is a picture of the shift being taken in many places from a traditional hierarchical business structure to one that I call a parallel one. This parallel structure is a network of relationships.
As you can see by this chart, there are some real differences between the traditional approach to organizing a business, and one built around relationships. This shift is hard for everyone who has spent their work life in a hierarchical structure.
In the traditional approach, a person is hired to fill a position. That position has a job description that outlines the specific tasks and responsibilities that they are to do. The employee's expectation is that is what their time at work will be like each day. Completing tasks that are assigned through the organizational design of the company. Responsibility is passed down to the employee,while authority is held at the top. This system worked well during an era of easy growth and social continuity. It does so because the ultimate purpose of the organization is institutional integrity.
In a network of relationships parallel structure, the job description is also relational. It means that the individual's character and engagement with people is part of what makes them a valued employee. Some may think this has always been true. And that is correct. These parallel structures of relationships have always formed when a specific need emerges. But they were seen as temporary or adhoc, not a permanent or essential part of the organization's structure.
What We Want
The greatest business failure of the past thirty years has not been scandals or financial collapses. It is the failure of business to understand the value of their employees. This failure originates in the structure of businesses.
If employees are functionaries in an administrative, production system, then their value is diminished, by let say at least 30%, and in some cases twice that.
If the business is organized to create order, then employees are hired to comply with that order. Institutional integrity becomes the goal of the organization.
However, in a network of relationships model, people bring much more to their work. This is what the team building movement has been teaching us for a generation. How people relate and work together is a key ingredient in an organization's success.
I suspect though that here again the value of the individual to company is still not perceived well.
If you were to sit down with each employee for coffee and talk about their lives, you would find what I am finding. There are three things that they want. Everyone says them differently, but they can be summarized simply.
People want their lives and work to be
Socially Fulfilling, and
Make a Difference that Matters.
This is what we all want. We want the values that matter to us to be central in how we live. We want some kind of purpose for our lives. There needs to be a point to it.
We also want our relationships to be healthy and whole. We don't like conflict. We don't like to be manipulated, to be taken for granted, or to be used for someone's selfish purposes. We want to walk into work hopeful and excited about the opportunity to share my day with the people with whom I work.
We want to feel at the end of the day that we did something that made a difference. Listen to what people say when they talk about a good day. One where they accomplished something. They overcame a challenge or an obstacle and succeeded at it. Also, they did something for someone else that was appreciated. It made a difference. There was real satisfaction in helping solve person's problems. That's what we want.
The Circle of Impact Connection
The lesson for me when I began to see this picture emerge is how congruent it was to the three dimensions of leadership that I had identified as the Circle of Impact.
The three dimensions that command every leader's attention are Ideas, Relationships and Structure. We tend to segregate them, thinking that it is easier that way. Instead it creates confusion and greater complexity. That is why the four Connecting Ideas - Purpose or Mission, Values, Vision and Impact - are essential tools for helping link together the three dimensions. And it begins by clarifying the Connecting Ideas.
The Circle of Impact applies to both kinds of structures, traditional and parallel, because this is a basic, fundamental understanding of all organizations, regardless of type. Every organization must address its ideology, its social context and how the business is structured to achieve impact. All of them. However, here's the difference.
The parallel structure, described above, is a Network of Relationships. Just like in a traditional hierarchical setting, this organizational structure requires attention to the Connecting Ideas, relationships and the organization of their work.
Networks of Relationships are formed around a Shared Mission and Shared Responsibility, where leadership, authority and responsibility to contribute are shared.
From this perspective of Shared Leadership, the responsibility of the individual is to take initiative to create impact. This is the most basic contribution of the team member. And because the group is organized as a network of relationships, their collaboration and communication is an essential focus of their relationships.
Most of us have experienced team work where there was a genuine experience of coming together as a group of shared purpose and contribution. And most likely, we see these experiences as the exceptions in our lives.
Let's return to my conversation with my friend and client about the administrative staff person in his office.
How can this perspective about parallel structures, networks of relationships, shared mission, shared responsibility, shared leadership and impact fit into his traditional business structure?
It begins with recognizing that each individual has unrealized potential waiting to be released. Everyone of us wants to work in an environment that is personally meaningful, socially fulfilling and makes a difference that matters. If that is so, then the first step is figuring out how those three personal goals can become the basis for the contributions of each person.
As a result, each person contributes that which is personally meaningful. Each person contributes in their interpersonal interaction that which is socially fulfilling. And each person contributes out of their own talent, expertise and character of personal initiative those actions that create the impact that makes a difference that matters.
For each person to do this means that the social structure of the business must change. And this shift is based on what each person shares with the whole of the organization.
Here's the insight that is a key to understanding this organizational change. Because these networks of relationships are parallel structures, they can work along side of, and even within the traditional structures of hierarchy. In fact they always have. But rarely as a core strategy, but rather as a tactical approach to team work.
We can see this is the way businesses define positions of employment. Instead of focused on contribution, the emphasis has been task oriented. As result, the value of the employee is not realized, and it makes the case for reductions in force must easier to make.
The future belongs to these parallel structures. Let networks of relationships form. Let them take collective initiative to make a difference that matters, then new vitally and impact will emerge.
Near the end of my father's career, the company for whom he had worked for over 35 years, was purchased, and, not so slowly, its assets drawn off and exploited for use by the parent company.
I remember him telling me of the day that he was on a management recruiting trip in Pennsylvania, and received a phone call that the company was not going to make payroll that week. He returned home to help usher through the closing of the company and be the last executive remaining as he handled the outstanding employee medical and benefit claims against the company. He was of an age where he could retire. It was a sad day for him. He had worked for the company his entire career.
My dad's story is not unusual. It is symptomatic of the time we are living in. I thought of my father as I watched last year's under-appreciated film, The Company Men. It is a story of executives and their families coping with change as their corporation goes through a series of downsizes simply to raise the share price. Like my father's experience, the film illustrates a very common experience of change. Here's a clip of a meeting where decisions are being made as to who is to be let go.
This has become a very normal experience for people. Even with a nice severance package, the emotional trauma of being fired is something that doesn't quickly go away. What lies behind this approach to quantifying the value of a company is a way of thinking about organizations that I believe is ultimately destructive rather than a path to sustainability. The logical outcome from over a century of this way of thinking has been the narrowing of the value of a company to something short term and specifically related to its financial value.
Consider the executive's rationale for downsizing staff and eliminating a division of the company in this exchange between Tommy Lee Jones and Craig T. Nelson's characters from the movie. .
Nelson: "Stock is stalled and revenue is flat."
Jones: "Entire economy is flat. We are in the middle of a recession."
N: "I only closed two of the shipyards. Should have closed all three of them. Stock is in the toilet."
J: "Everybody's stock is in the toilet."
N: "Well, the stockholders would like to see their share value maximized."
J: "Heh, Heh, Heh, Well ... sell the Degas'. ... three thousand jobs?"
N: "Gene, we aren't some little shipyard any more. I'm not going to keep pouring money into a losing operation."
J: "We innovate, retool ..."
N: "American heavy manufacturing is dead. Steel, auto, shipbuilding ... the future is in healthcare infrastructure and power generation."
J: "I have to be involved in any decision that affects one of my divisions."
N: "You wouldn't have approved the cut. ... You'd go behind my back to the board again, right?"
J: "They were good people, Jim."
Both men are backed up against a wall. They are caught by a way of thinking about the value of companies that worked in times where growth was relatively assured. Now, the competition is tougher, more astute and far more flexible in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Do you think they could have seen this coming? I'm not sure. It goes back to how to you determine the value of a company. I'm not talking about how Wall Street values it, but the people who are touched by the company in some manner. How do they value the company?
Can the value of a company be reduced to one thing, like the share price, or the charismatic leadership of the CEO or a design innovation? Or is the value embedded in the whole structure and context of the organization?
We are in a time of global transition in all aspects of life. Short-term, reductive, passive aggressive, reactive thinking is not going to lead us out of a recession into a new era of peace and prosperity. Instead, we need to realize that our approach is failing, and that we need a new way to think about how organizations function. It must start with the willingness to be different, to think differently, and invest in changes that provide for long term development.
The Context of Change
The ancient Greeks had a word for change which is metanoia. Literally, it means a change of mind, but it has come to mean something much larger and more comprehensive. Metanoia points to a change of orientation, perspective and direction. There is a sense in the meaning that the change of mind is accompanied by some regret. So the change, upon reflection, is a choice to follow a different path. People choosing to turn toward different values and new ways of expressing them. Metanoia is a change that embraces the whole person, the mind, feelings and will, and is expressed in action that is change.
This change of mind is an awareness that the path we have been on is no longer sustainable. As I wrote in my post, The End and The Beginning, this change marks an end of an era in several ways. The nature of this redirection means that the recent past is no longer an adequate guide for understanding what we must do in the future. As I began in that post,
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
The continuity between the recent past and the near future has broken down. This is a turning point for us. The 20th century may provide our most immediate experiential memory, but for the purpose of understanding the future, it is now ancient history.
Reflect upon the attacks on 9/11, our response to them, and the global recession of past three years, and our response to it. Can you see how the tried-and-true methods of the last century have not worked. Neither peace nor prosperity are being restored, in fact, the world is less peaceful and prosperous than it was a decade ago. Terrorism maybe contained upon our shores, but it still festers in places of poverty throughout the world.
Fear, doubt and diminishment in the confidence in our leaders and institutions are increasing. Greater diversity, interconnectivity, and, yes, even greater business efficiencies, are not answering the question about what it is that we must do.
We are now at a crossroads that requires metanoia, a change that is comprehensive and whole. This change of mind requires us to begin to see businesses as a whole organizations, rather than as a collection of interchangeable, discardable, transferable, value-specific parts. The company in The Company Men was dying because it too, like my father's company, was just a collection of assets to be exploited. There is no future in this way of thinking. To have a future requires us to change our minds and see things differently.
To change our minds, we need to make Three Turns of perception, understanding and orientation.
The Moral Turn In the first clip from The Company Men, above, Tommy Lee Jones' character raises questions about the selection of people to be let go. His response, that there is an ethical question involved, is met with a legalistic answer.
By reducing the decision to a question of share price and what is required under the law, the company is not just making a business decision, but also a moral choice.
What is a company that no longer manufactures its products? Is it now a money machine for its share holders as long as the money holds out?
The moral turn is first and foremost about the purpose or mission of the company.
Does a company whose actual purpose is share price encourage confidence and trust?
Does a company whose primary focus is share price understand its connection to the people who work in the business and the communities where they are physically located?
Is a company more than its financials?
Does a company have a responsibility that goes beyond its shareholders, and what is defined by what is strictly legal?
Every organization exists in a context that is greater than the sum of the parts of the organization. There is a culture that is physical, ideological, technological and social.
For example, what distinguishes an insurance company in London to one based in Sao Paulo or Detroit is geography and culture. Yes, they each ofter insurance plans. Yes, they each have customers. Yes, they each generate revenue. The difference is the local context that helps to define the culture of the business.
As a result ...
a company is not primarily its mission or purpose, but its values that are embedded in ideas and relationships within the context, culture and structure of the organization.
Values permeate the whole of the business, including those persons and organizations outside of the business who are influenced by it. Values inform its purpose, its vision of impact, its relationships with all those who are touched by the company, and how the company measures its impact.
The mission of a company is a product of its values.
When the purpose of the company is more than its financial value to shareholders, it is no longer, just a reservoir of assets to be exploited, but a context in which to create the future.
Recently I heard a presenter during in an organizational development workshop describe organizations that are mission driven as organizations on the rise. He used a diagram similar to this one that I use to describe organizations in transition.
When a company reaches a point of maturity or stabilization or equilibrium, the importance of its mission as a guide often fades. What follows is an increasing focus on its financial assets as its primary purpose. The presenter was convinced that once an organization shifts from a mission focus to a financial focus, it has entered a stage of decline. In effect, they no longer see how a company can grow, but rather be sold.
The moral turn that a company needs to make is to reaffirm its values and reestablish its mission as the driving force of the company as a whole.
The Social Turn When the value of a company is reduced to its share price, the company loses the value that exists within its social structure. Not every member of the organization benefits from a rise in the share price. As a result, the company fragments into internally competitive parts to see who will survive the company's disintegration.
For example, as a Boston Red Sox fan for over 45 years, I was particularly disappointed in their collapse this year. It was not that old patterns of attitudes and behaviors that had hampered the team in the past had returned. Rather, it was the squandering of the talent and potential that existed on paper, at least, at the beginning of the season.
By all appearances, the social environment of the team is the core reason for their decline. At the beginning of the season, they were the odds on favorite to win the World Series. Great pitching, the acquisition of two all-star hitters, and a coaching staff that had produced two World Series championships held great promise for the upcoming season. Yet all that collapsed into a mess in what appears to be based in a collective selfishness and lack of accountability for the team's social environment and on field performance.
The Social Turn is the recovery of the human dimension in organizations. As human beings we are social beings through which our individuality develops. Much of the fragmentation of modern business organizations isolates individuals and business units into individualized roles that make collaborative team work more difficult. As a result, the connections that exist between people in the workplace are treated as having marginal value.
In The Company Men, when Ben Affleck is fired, the stated reason is that his position is redundant. In effect, the company was recouping a cost that it viewed was exceptional rather than necessary. The company also loses in this kind of fragmenting of the social structure of the business. Affleck's character was not just a person in a cubicle, but was a connection point in a network of relationships that provided information and influence beyond the company. The value may be redundant, but it is a redundancy that creates strength and resilience, not weakness.
Social fragmentation is not just found in businesses, but in global society at large. Its destructiveness finds its way into companies and organizations, weakening their ability to marshal the talent that exists. The Social Turn is one that values relationships of honor, respect, humility, trust and mutual reciprocity. These values function to create a social fabric that allows for diversity and interconnectivity that creates the sustainability that businesses and communities need.
The Structural Turn The industrial model of business was conceptualized around the idea that a business is filled with a few smart people and a lot of laborers. The world has changed, yet the structures of organizations have not. Still the structure is a hierarchy of decision-makers "leading" a larger number of decision-implementers.
This approach does not work as well as it once did. Here are just a few reasons.
1. Technology levels the information playing field.
2. Advances in public education, and the expansion of higher education has created a society of workers who are much better informed and equipped to do decision-making type work.
3. The complexity of working in a global environment of diverse cultures makes it more difficult for a few people to know everything they need to know about the issues that confront their business.
4. The skills required for leadership and management of business are much more accessible to far more people than every before.
5. Hierarchical structures are organized for control through compartmentalization and standardization.
The Structure Turn that is taking place elevates personal initiative, network collaboration, and adaptive learning as the keys to the organization and leadership of businesses.
Instead of a structure organized around compartmentalized roles and defined areas of responsibility, the emerging structure is an open environment where the skills and resources needed for the work of the business is acquired through a network relationship structure.
In this structure each person is responsible for the whole of the project, not just their segment. Each person can function in the role of leader, while not having a title as one.
In this networked structure, the premium skills are placed upon thinking skills that are both analytical and intuitive.
As I recently commented to Dana Leman of RandomKid,
"Imagine Proctor & Gamble without bosses and managers, and everyone is a leader."
Leadership ceases to be a title, and becomes a set of behaviors and attitudes that all share. For the character of this kind of leadership to take root, it requires changing the structure.
The Structural Turn is towards an organizational culture where people are free to create and contribute, to communicate, to initiate and to pitch in where they see a need. Instead of being doers of assigned responsibilities, they are facilitators and problem solvers. In many companies, this kind of structure is developing. However, it must happen at the senior level for the turn to be successful.
How would the company in The Company Men function differently if they operated under a network structure?
1. More people would be engaged in meaningful reflection about the challenges facing the company because they knew that had an actual stake in its success.
2. Innovation would be more prevalent as employees practiced a higher level of leadership initiative and problem solving.
3. New business applications through employee ingenuity would expand the number and range of revenue streams the company has.
4. The company would be unified behind its shared values and mission.
5. The company would be a more attractive place for the top talent to work.
6. The company could more easily adapt to financial downturns.
7. Communities would be vying for the opportunity for the company to create a local operation.
The central message of the Three Turns is for your mission to drive change in the company, centered around values that unite people to create a shared company culture of trust, personal initiative, and a desire to contribute to the company's success. When this happens, the turn from hierarchical structure to a network one can take place as a natural evolution of the company.
Change is embedded in everything. It is the subtext of every topic of conversation that I have. It is the core issue of every project that I do.
Our assumptions about change need to change.
First Assumption: Change is bad.
Change is neutral. It is needed in every aspect of life. Without change there is no life. Too much change too quickly can be destructive. Change functions on a continuum between growth and decline, even life and death.
Second Assumption: The Opposite of Change is No Change.
Staying the same isn't a very sustainable strategy. Yet, it seems to be the response I hear most often to the prospect of change.
Third Assumption: Manage Change through Attitudes and Behaviors.
This is a good approach to a point. It assumes that human beings are living in an environment which is changing and their response (attitudes and behaviors) is how we address change. However, I find that this is an inadequate approach to the management of change.
I can understand why these assumptions are the ones I encounter most. They are based on assumptions that are the conventional wisdom of the past century. What are those assumptions?
Fourth Assumption: Large, Global, Transnational Organization is the logical, progressive direction of human civilization.
This assumption is captured most succinctly in the phrase "too big to fail." Yet, we do see failure, decline, possible disintegration and collapse of the world's largest and, at one time, the most progressive and prosperous nations and organizations.
Fifth Assumption: Stability, efficiency and maximumization of resources are the highest values of organizations.
What this perspective actually produces is vocational instability, economic volatility, social dislocation and the concentration of power and resources into the hands of the few.
Sixth Assumption: Urbanization, and the loss of an agrarian socio-economic culture, is the progressive and beneficial outcome of these historic trends.
While I am not an urban sociologist or economist, my on-the-ground observations is that increasing urbanization is more inefficient, is poor ground for the sustainability of inter-generational communal social structures, and increases the cost and demands of daily living. It seems to me that all these factors exist within a continuum where too little and too dense are not ideal for community or socio-economic sustainability.
Seventh Assumption: The above trends have disrupted natural cycles of growth by accelerating the process of change beyond what is now manageable under the assumptions of the past century.
As an out-of-alignment wheel on a car spins more chaotically as speed and variation increase, so are the cycles of change increasing in speed and variability.
Eighth Assumption: Change is cyclical and we are at the end of a long cycle of the kind of growth in organizations described above.
From a contemporary context, is Greece's economic meltdown the anomaly or is it the canary in the coalmine? Are we at the end of the era where large, global, transnational organizations can function?
Ninth Assumption: The future will be or should be like the past.
There are two assumptions here. One is if the past is prelude to the future, then what in our past should we have seen that would have helped us to predict the past decade of terrorism, war, political division and global economic recession?
... for Baby Boomers, this is the age of our childhood. There is this tendency of humans to look back to a golden age. If you quiz people, the golden age usually corresponds to their childhood. They’ll say, life was simpler. Of course, life was simpler, you were 8 years old.
There’s this thinking of, if we could just get back to the way things were in 1950 or 1960, then all will be well. Part of it is this individual nostalgia.
But part of it is this historically anomalous position during this period from 1945 to 1965. Because in a fundamental way, the US was the only victor of World War II. The US was the only country that came out with a stronger economy than it went in. America’s principal industrial competitors were either gravely weakened, like Britain, or absolutely demolished like Germany and Japan. So, it was easy for the US to embrace free trade. Yeah, level the playing field because we’ve already leveled the industrial capacity of all our competitors.
The weakness of this assumption is that underlying it is a belief often held that our best years are in the past, not the future, therefore, what changes we experience today are taking us further away from the golden age of the past.
Tenth Assumption: Change is Structural, and cannot be adequately faced by just changing attitudes and behaviors.
The future is going to be different. The last stage of acceptance of this will be the recognition that many of the above assumptions are declining in validity. Yes, of course, as individuals we adapt to change by modifying our attitudes and behaviors. We also must adapt by changing the social and organizational structures that have led us to this point in history.
The indicators of structural change are already evident. They are awaiting application in theory, design and practice. I'll write about them in my next posting.
A friend of mine recently commented that his business and professional relationships were transactional,not relational. In describing them, he meant that while they were congenial, the motivation for the relationship was quid-pro-quo.
I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine, and will only scratch yours if you scratch mine.
A transaction-based relationship exists as a function of a reciprocal economic exchange. It is a sophisticated form of negotiated shared mutual self-interest. It's nothing personal. Just an agreement between two or more people, or the culture that exists in an organization or community.
In a transactional culture, the institutional relationship centers within a game of power, influence and control. The reward in such a relationship is the validation of self worth by the organization.
Communities, where a transaction-based culture exists, is oriented around the status of the influential and prominent, and the line between those who are and are not is clearly maintained as a part of the culture.
As my friend shared his experience with me, the context reminded me of the organizational leaders whom I interviewed in the mid-1990s. In those interviews, I asked,"If you were to lose everything this afternoon, who would stand with you?" Most answered with silence. One or two offered, "My mother?" None said their business partners, their friends, their spouse or children.
One reason the psychic effects of the recession have been so severe is that self-worth for so many business and professional people is rooted in this transactional institutional relationship. In effect,
"I am my position, title, job responsibilities and compensation package."
Displaced from this organizational setting after years of service, cast adrift into a sea of other unemployed professionals, it quickly becomes apparent that these transactional relationships cannot sustain us through life's disruptive transitions.
Like the leaders I interviewed, many people are finding that their confidence in the support and security of their institution is disintegrating. As accomplished professionals, who successfully maneuvered the challenges of operating within a transactional business environment, they now realize that they are on-their-own to chart their future course in an unknown landscape where organizational connection matters less and less, and human connection everything.
As with most of my projects, questions are the driver of discovery.
At first, I wanted to understand gratitude, and how it can build stronger relationships and strengthen organizations.
Then, I began to ask a question that got behind my original one.
When I am grateful to someone, to what am I responding?
After considerable of reflection, I finally concluded that it was human kindness.
By kindness, I mean acts that represent a certain kind of attitude and behavior that we have about people and our relationships with them. I'm not just talking about family relationships, or close friends, but all our relationships, personal and professional.
Here's are some examples that inspire me to celebrate this human motivation.
A friend wrote me to tell about how she had been transferred to a different department within her company. While the change was good for her, it put her former boss and co-workers in a difficult position. Here's her description of what she did.
I told my ex-boss and current boss, that for my own conscience and personal conviction, I felt strongly wanting to help my ex-dept (esp my ex-bosses) as they were in very difficult times. I decided to take my few days of leave and go back to my ex-dept to coach and help them. Many, could not understand why I needed to go to this extent to help (by taking own leave) and jeopardizing my appraisal from my new dept by going the extra mile to help my ex-dept. I was not bothered because I knew what I was doing and I felt that loyalty, compassion and being there for my ex-bosses and colleagues were the most important things in life compared to how my new dept assessed me in my new appraisal.
My friend's former bosses and colleagues meant something to her. Her relationship to them was not a transactional relationship, but a professional relationship with a genuine depth of caring.
Another example that remains in my memory are the people I met in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast who had left the home communities, sold their homes or shut their utilities off, lock the doors and moved to contribute in the relief and recovery of the region following Hurricane Katrina. Six years later, some are still there making a difference as the region rebuilds.
I have the same respect for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of nameless people, who in the midst of the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center towers, the attack on The Pentagon and the bringing down of Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania, cared for people whom they did not know, yet were in need. Their acts of kindness and sacrifice are, for me, why we commemorate this day each year. They are a living reminder that not everyone bases their actions on a mutual economic exchange.
These examples, and many others, are for me theKindness / Gratitude Connection.
Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor describe kindness, in their book On Kindness, this way.
"... life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others."
Kindness is not the first attribute that we'd use to describe a business. Yet, it is one that we may identify as why we are loyal to one.
Kindness is an expression of empathy. People who are kind and empathetic are able to see in other people the challenges they face and the potential that they have. The empathy connection, like kindness, builds relationships of strength to overcome serious life challenges.
Kindness is a leadership capacity that transcends the formal structure of the organization.
Leaders who can engage people with kindness and empathy are able to find resources of motivation and commitment that are non-existent in a transactional relationship.
Kindness in its fullness requires a level of personal maturity that enables us to look beyond our individual interests. In kindness, we can see the dignity, value and potential of other people.
Think of the many professional situations we encounter everyday. We walk into a room. There are a dozen or more people in there. What should our intention be?
If our intention is to be kind to each person, then we enter the room with the purpose of honoring them. To do so I must see that my presence in the room is not about me. It is about the connection that can be made between me and another person, and of the room as a whole body of people. My purpose is not to get something, but to contribute.
Does everyone in the room deserve this sort of treatment? Obviously not. But it isn't about treating people as they deserve. That is the transactional mindset. Rather, being kind in a business and professional context is about my acting in such a way that we all are able to achieve higher levels of impact that we could have.
I am suggesting that the practice of kindness and gratitude is a strategy for strengthening organizations. And, that without it, a company is weaker, less able to manage change and adapt to their opportunities.
I am saying that a transactional mindset is inherently unpredictable and organizationally divisive, and contributes to economic instability in organizations and the global economy.
I am actually saying that leaders who only know how to work within a transactional model are weaker, and, their displays of control and ego are masks for fear and a sense of inadequacy.
Treating each person with respect, empathy and honor doesn't mean that we are simply nice to them. It is means that we listen and treat their ideas and their actions seriously. By treating them with honor, we are able to be constructively critical. Without honor, our criticism easily becomes self-serving and destructive.
With honor and kindness, we build understanding between us that elevates our mutual strategic thought processes. This is often what is missing in executive efforts to increase team communication and decision-making. It isn't about the analytical process, but about the relationship that builds understanding, unity and commitment.
A reason why so much of social networking, whether in person or online, is a waste of time is because its based on a transactional perspective. When we seek to be kind, to contribute to the welfare of others, to practice the Five Actions of Gratitude, then the social dynamic changes.
As my understanding of Gratitude and, now, Kindness has grown, I'm also seeing how my best online relationships are mutual expressions of The Kindness / Gratitude Connection.
The Power of Mutual Reciprocity
Genuine accountability in relationships requires openness, transparency, and a mutual willingness to adapt and change to make the relationship work.We share a mutual intention to submit to one another's critique and counsel.
When mutual accountability works, the relationship transcends the transaction and begins to move toward a relationship that reflects the kindness / gratitude connection.
Kindness fosters giving. It opens up social settings to opportunities that do not exist except when relationships are healthy and vital. Givers are the source of this openness. Philanthropy is an embodiment of the kindness of strangers giving to causes and institutions that matter to them. Their giving creates the strength that makes a society work.
For this reason, gratitude is more than a function of social etiquette to which my grandmother would earnestly approve. Rather, It is a fundamental part of every human relationship that completes the act of kindness by giving back in gratitude.
"A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy."
"There is a false and momentary happiness in self-satisfaction, but it always leads to sorrow because it narrows and deadens our spirit. True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared. There is no end to the sharing of love, and, therefore, the potential happiness of such love is without limit. Infinite sharing is the law of God's inner life. He has made the sharing of ourselves the law of our own being, so that it is in loving others that we best love ourselves. In disinterested activity we best fulfill our own capacities to act and to be."
"Yet there can never be happiness in compulsion. It is not enough for love to be shared: it must be shared freely. That is to say it must be given, not merely taken. Unselfish love that is poured out upon a selfish object does not bring perfect happiness: not because love requires a return or a reward for loving, but because it rests in the happiness of the beloved. And if the one loved receives love selfishly, the lover is not satisfied. He sees that his love has failed to make the beloved happy. It has not awakened his capacity for unselfish love."
"Hence the paradox that unselfish love cannot rest perfectly except in a love that is perfectly reciprocated: because it knows that the only true peace is found in selfless love. Selfless love consents to be loved selflessly for the sake of the beloved. In so doing, it perfects itself."
"The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received."
The expression of kindness is analogous to the expression of love between people. Paraphrasing Merton, we could say.
The gift of kindness is the gift of the power and the capacity to be kind, and, therefore, to give kindness with full effect is also to receive it.
The gift of gratitude is the gift of the power and the capacity to be grateful, and, therefore, to give gratitude with full effect is also to receive it.
The fulfillment of love for Merton isn't the expression of it. Rather, it is the mutual benefit that comes from mutual giving and receiving. This is what the Kindness / Gratitude Connection means.
My purpose is to show that gratitude is not just some nice thing that we do. Oh, isn't she nice. She sent me a thank you note. My point is to show that the expression of kindness and gratitude changes a professional relationship from a transactional one to an adaptive one..
When we act towards others with kindness, we open up possibilities in our relationship with them that would be more difficult to discover if my only interest was closing the deal. We become much more aware of the situations that we each have, and those that we share. As a result our communication level is deeper, and our willingness to help the other out is greater.
The Future is Kind
Everywhere I turn I see organizations and institutions failing because they think they can sustain the past into the future. The transaction-based professional relationship and institution are relics of a much more homogeneous, economically predictable time. It is the model of the 20th century that worked.
The 21st century is vastly different. The organizational forms of the past are disintegrating, to the point that all that is left is the commitment and desire of people to sustain the place of their employment.
The future is going to be secured in relationships of mutuality, kindness, honor, empathy and gratitude.
These relationships will transcend all the boundaries that we spent the 20th century seeking to overcome. Where they remain are places still committed to sustaining the past.
The beauty of the 21st century is that it is open to everyone because it is built upon our relationships with one another. It is not just an ethical perspective, but a strategic development one. Making the Kindness / Gratitude Connection a strategic focus on a business, the kind of relationship we need to manage rapid, accelerating global change can be realized. The real beauty of it is that it is not institutionalize, but personalized in each one of us.
If we want to be successful in every aspect of our lives in the future, then learn to be kind, giving, grateful and honoring of the people in your life.
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
Working in planning processes over the years, I've concluded that people can see what they want, but fail to reach it because of how they go about it. We can imagine the future, but not see the path that will take us there. This gap in our abilities is becoming more acute as the ways we have worked are becoming less effective.
From another perspective, we rarely see the end of something coming, or the beginning of the next thing. We tend to see in retrospect. Our aversion to change, I believe, is largely because we don't like surprises. We defend the past hoping that it is sustainable into the future, even if we see a better, different one.The past, even less than ideal, at least seems known and more certain, more secure, more stable, more predictable, more comfortable, at one level. It does not mean that it is satisfying or fulfilling, but it seems safer.
As a result, instead of providing us a sound basis for change, the past can inhibit us from achieving the vision that we see. Instead, we live by a set of cultural forms that must be defended against change. In other words, the form of the way we live and work remains the same even after its vitality has gone.
Change that has come
What impresses me about our time is how fast change is happening, and how quickly things we thought were normative seem less relevant.
Ten years ago, websites were the rage. You weren't on the cutting edge of business without one. Today, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other social media platforms are the norm for a business. Twenty years ago, CDs were the norm. Now, digital I-Tunes downloads. Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union was the West's nemesis, now militant Islam. Forty years ago, Vietnam and racial equality were the dominant issues of our time. Now we have an African-American President, and Howard Schultz wants Starbucks in Vietnam. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy was challenging the nation to go to the Moon within the decade. Today, the government is putting space exploration on the back burner as space travel is becoming privatized.
Could we have imagined these changes? Possibly. We'd probably not be able to see how they'd happen. That is the curious thing about visions and visioning. We can imagine the end, but not the means. The pathway to the future goes through today and tomorrow. Yet, we are captives of our past thinking and experiences. They are the measure of what is possible and what can be done.
The End and the Beginning
I have been reflecting, in particular, on these thoughts over the past several months. I've tried to step back without prejudice and identify what I see without reducing it down to a few simple categories. What I do see are the markers of change in three broad areas.
For one it is the The Beginning of the End, for another The End of the Beginning, and for another, surprisingly, The Beginning of a long delayed Beginning.
Some of this reflection was prompted by a conversation about a project event to take place later this year. It was a discussion about how businesses function. The contrast was between a focus of work as a set of tasks to be done and the importance of human interaction in meeting organizational goals. I realized coming out of that conversation that this project, for me, represented a turning point in human and organizational development. It provided a picture of the past and the future. The past as the Industrial model of business organization and the future of organizations as communities of leaders. That last phrase was what I envisioned a decade and a half ago when I began my consulting business. Only now, after all these years, do I see that simple idea beginning to have relevance for the way we live, work, organize and lead organizations.
What I see is:
The Beginning of the End of the Progressive ideal.
The Endof the Beginning of the Capitalist model.
The Emergence of freedom and democracy on a global scale.
The first two, Progressivism and Capitalism, along with modern Science, are the principal products of the age of Enlightenment.
The Progressive ideal believed, and still does by many of its advocates, that through government control of science and industry a free, equitable and peaceful world could be achieved. Conceived during the 19th century as a belief that society could be perfected, and as a counter-balance to the industrialization taking place in Europe and the United States, it was an utopian belief in a well-order, controlled, uniform world.
The Capitalist model was born in a belief that each individual should be free to pursue their own economic welfare, and not be forced by government rules or economic servitude to do that which they choose not to do. It was the ideology that provided the basis of the industrialization out which has come prosperity for more people in history and the rise of the modern middle class.
Both the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have brought great benefits and liabilities to society. They form the two sides of virtually every divisive issue confronting the world today. They are quite similar, yet in very different ways. Both are organized around the control of power and wealth. Both have been institutionalized in the large, hierarchical organizations in Washington and on Wall Street, and in similar institutions throughout the world.
Over the past decade, the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have begun to show their age. The assumptions that underlie these ideologies are being challenged by forces of change that are beyond their control. Because the control of global forces of change is problematic and less realistic.
A principal assumption of the Enlightenment is that we can know what we need to know by analytical decision making. In other words, by identifying the parts of a situation, we understand it, and therefore can design a strategic mechanism for controling the outcome. This analytical process works very well in the realm of the natural sciences, less so in the realm of the social sciences. To paraphrase novelist Walker Percy, "Science can tell us how the brain functions, but not about the functioning of the mind."
At the beginning of this essay, I wrote of what I was seeing The Beginning of The End of the Progressive ideal and The End of the Beginning of the Capitalist model. Neither of these observations are political statements. I am not a Democrat, nor a Republican. I am not a Progressive nor a Libertarian. I find none of the current choices of political affiliation representative of my own perspective and values. I speak as an outlier, not an antagonist.
I see these ideological movements as products of a different time in history. The assumptions and the way of thinking that brought these ideologies into prominence are now receding in appropriateness. The conditions that gave rise to these ideas over the past three hundred years are now giving way to new conditions. If progressivism and capitalism are to survive, then their proponents must change.
These ideologies born in the age of Enlightenment share a reductive approach to knowledge. In other words, we gain knowledge and understanding by breaking things into parts. The assumption is that things are collections of discrete parts. Yet, we know that in the natural sciences, the mixing of different chemical elements creates something new and different that cannot exist in any other way. Water being the most obvious example.
However, in the social realm, there is a shift toward emergent knowledge as the basis for understanding what is. The emergent perspective sees connections and wholes rather than just parts. In a network of relationships, the value isn't one person, but rather the connections that one person has to other persons.
Think of it as the difference between those radio ads selling lists of sales leads, and knowing the person who has a relationship with 100 of those buyers. The former is a list of contacts, of names and addresses. It is a parts list. The other is a picture of a network of connections that one person has. This second picture is the picture of the future, for it is a picture of relationships.
We see emerging forces all around us. Again, this is not a political statement, but an observation. One difference between the Tea Party demonstrations and the Union demonstrations of the past year is the difference between an emergent organization and a traditional hierarchical one. The Tea Party organization is intentionally decentralized in local communities. Unions are designed as centralized concentrations of power. One body speaking for a host of organizations.
The difference here is between a centralized and decentralized organizational structure, like that described in Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom's book, The Starfish and The Spider. The centralized structure (the spider) is vulnerable at the top. Take down the leader, and the organization suffers significant loss of prestige and power. The decentralized system (the starfish) is not vulnerable at the top, because there is none. In a decentralized system, no one expression controls the fortunes of the whole. The centralized is the industrialized model, and the decentralized, an emergent one. The system that the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model share is one of centralization. Operating separate from both are independents and small business entrepreneurs. The difference is between a hierarchy of control and a network of collaborative relationships.
The recent rebellions in the Middle East are also examples of this emergent model. The use of cell phone and internet technology to connect people in agile, less structured ways make these rebellions possible, not necessarily successful, but possible.Their desire is for a freedom that they see provided and secured by democracy. When thousands of demonstrators fill the streets of Cairo seeking the end of a repressive regime, their impact is far greater than their numbers. We see a visual counterpoint of the difference between being a nation of free people and one living under an authoritarian government.
In business, the emergent model has relevance. When a business perceives itself to be a structure of parts, processes and outcomes, following upon the centralized industrial model, then it has a much more difficult time seeing the value that exists in the relational connections that exist both between people and within the structure itself. It is why so many businesses become siloed and turf battles insue.
However, when a business sees itself as a network of interactive individuals, then the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The result is higher levels of communication, collaboration and coordination.
While the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model are products of the age of Enlightenment, emergence, freedom and democracy are even older ideas finding new ground and relevance. In the traditional business organization, their relevance can be seen in two ways.
First, in the freedom of the individual to take responsibility through their own initiative. This perspective harkens back to the ancient Greek democracies where Greek farmers and small business owners participated in the governance and protection of their city-state. For businesses to replicate such an ethos requires a shift in perspective from employees as functionaries of the tasks of the company to a recognition of the potential contribution that each person offers. It is in this sense that each person leads out of their own personal initiative to give their best to the company.
Second, in the emergence of businesses as human communities of shared responsibility. The traditional approach has been to break down the organizational structures into discrete parts of tasks and responsibilities, and to staff to that conception of the organization. This traditional hierarchical approach worked in simpler times when businesses were less global, more homogeneous, and employees less well trained, and had the technology to advance their contributions beyond their individual position in the company.
Today, the environment of business has changed, as the context becomes more complex and change accelerates. Agility and responsiveness are not embedded in structure, but in human choice and in relationships that amplify those shared choices to make a difference. It is the freedom to take initiative to act in concert with others that creates the conditions of successfully managing the challenging environment of business today. The result of a greater emphasis on relationship, interaction and personal initiative is a shift in culture. One only has to select any page in the Zappos.com Culture Book to see the influence of genuine community upon the attitudes and behaviors of the company's workforce.
The Keys to Change
I began this post by saying that we rarely see the end of something coming or the beginning of something new. What I offer here has been germinating in my mind for the past three years. It is still not yet fully formed, and may never be. Yet, I am convinced that the changes that I see happening mean that there is no going back to the halcyon days of the 1990's or even the 1950's. Business organizations will not long succeed as mechanistic structures of human parts. Rather they must emerge into being communities of leaders, where individual initiative, community and freedom are fundamental aspects of the company's culture
The keys to the future, in my mind, are fairly simple.
1. Leadership starts with individual employees' own personal initiative to make a difference. Create space and grant permission for individual employees to take initiative to create new ways of working, new collaborative partnerships and solve problems before that reach a crisis level.
2. Relationships are central to every organizational endeavor. Create space for relationships to grow, and the fruit will be better communication, more collaboration between people and groups, and a more efficient coordination of the work of the organization.
3. Open the organization to new ideas about its mission. Identify the values that give purpose and meaning to the company's mission. Organize around those values that unite people around a common purpose, that give them the motivation to want to communicate better, collaborate more, and coordinate their work with others. Openness is a form of freedom that releases the hidden and constrained potential that exists within every company.
We are now at the End of an era that is unprecedented in human history. The next era is Beginning, and each of us has the privilege and the opportunity to share in its development. It requires adapting to new ideas, new ways of thinking, living and working. I welcome the change that is emerging, because I find hope that a better world can be gained through its development.
It is hard to believe that the first decade of the 21st century is now history. It has not been the decade that most of us expected. It has been filled with terror, war, economic disruption, political disappointment, natural disasters that showcased governmental inadequacies, and the emergence of social media as a force. In many respects, it was a decade where society did not move forward, and little prospects for broad scale improvement in the near future.
Andy Crouch, an insightful cultural interpreter, has posted his assessment of the 10 tends that marked the first decade of the 2000's.
The End of the Marjority
The Self Shot
I'm in basic agreement with most of what Crouch offers here. However, it raises questions for me.
If these are trends, then where are they leading us?
What is the line that extends from the past through the present to the future?
What should we do in response to these trends?
These trends are markers or sign-posts of changes that have been long in development. I see these trends leading forward in the following ways.
Connection / Place / Cities / Pornography / The Self Shot
This trend line is complex because it is a mixture of several converging ones.
The need ...
for rootedness in a place,
for a place of openness, discovery and genuine diversity,
for intimacy, and,
for a real understanding of one's own identity.
All these are converging. Each of these trends have their problematic dimension though:
Of the shallowness of online connection
Of the disconnection of people from the physical places where they live and work
Of the economic viability of both rural and urban environments that fail to create an environment for human creativity
Of the failure of the institution of marriage to be a viable form of human intimacy for large numbers of people
Of a religious and political culture that offers narcissism rather than human community as a basis for human purpose.
The End of the Majority / Polarity / Informality / Liquidity / Complexity
This trend line is moving fast away from the social conventions and institutions of previous generations. The status of elite groups and institutions once secured by a culture of common perceptions and simple approaches is under going dramatic change. One-size-fits-all, works-for-all, and is available-to-all is no longer reflective of the way the world works, if it ever truly did. Instead, complexity is the structure of society. As a result, no single or generic approach works. Instead many different approaches can be effective. The key here then is to understand how complexity impacts us on a daily basis.
"The keys to coping with complexity are to be found in two aspects of understanding. First is the design of the thing itself that determines its understanding. Does it have an underlying logic, a foundation that, once mastered, makes everything fall into place? Second is our own set of abilities and skills. Have we taken the time and effort to understanding and master the structure? Understandability and understanding: two critical keys to mastery."
Questions that I have.
What is the underlying logic that explains the meaning of these trends?
What is the "design (of the thing itself)" of the time we live?
What is the historical movement that helps us to gain understanding of the past decade, the past generation, and what we may expect of the next decade and generation.
My conclusion is that we are in the midst of dramatic period of unprecedented change. In order to understand these trends, we need to understand the assumptions that have guided human history for the past several centuries.
For example, beginning in the 18th century a shift began that impacted virtually every country. It was the shift from aristocracy to democracy. What may not be readily evident in this shift is the continuity that was maintained throughout these great historic changes.
I wrote about this shift in my review of Lucino Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard. It is a picture of the change from the old aristocratic order to new world order of democratic progressivism. In that post, I include a long dialogue that the Prince of Sicily and the representative of the new modern, progressive government of Italy have. Here's a portion.
The Prince: I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions.
What would the Senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who guide others? No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would get bitten off.
Chevalley: Would you seriously refuse to do all you can to alleviate the state of physical squalor and blind moral misery in which your own people lie?
The Prince: We are old, Chevalley. Very old. For more that 25 centuries, we have borne the weight of superb civilizations that have come from outside, never of our own creation, none we could call our own. For 2,500 years, we've been nothing but a colony. I'm not complaining. It's our fault. But we are worn out and exhausted.
Chevalley: But all that's over now. Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free member of a free state.
The Prince: Your intention is good, but it comes too late.
Sleep, my dear Chevalley, a long sleep - that is what Sicilians want. They will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even to bring them the most wonderful gifts. And between ourselves, I doubt whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. Here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is ... death once again.
Chevalley: Prince, are you exaggerating? I myself have met Sicilians in Turin who seemed anything but asleep.
The Prince: I haven't explained myself well. I'm sorry. I said Sicilians. I should have said Sicily. This atmosphere, the violence of the landscape, the cruelty of the climate, the constant tension in everything -
Chevalley: Climate can be overcome, landscape improved, the memory of evil governments canceled. Surely the Sicilians want to improved.
The Prince: I don't deny that a few, once off the island, may wake up, but they must leave very young. By 20, it's too late. The crust has already formed. What you need, Chevalley, is a man who is good at blending his personal interests with vague public ideals.
The picture here is of the clash between the ideals of progressivism and the exhaustion of the old order. With the former there was a belief that the world's problems could be solved, and with the latter, a realization that even in the midst of change, there is not much that changes.
What we can see here is not the replacement of the aristocracy with a populist government, but rather the transfer of power from one kind of elitism to another. It is the elitism of modern democratic progressivism that is reaching the same point that the old order aristocrats reached two centuries ago. That exhaustion is the inadequacy of the ideas and values that inspired revolution to create a sustainable society in a highly complex context. Ultimately, what happens is the loss of the ideals themselves and the adoption of a formula that is designed to resist change and perpetuate the system.
This trend suggests other trends.
The end of institutions as a unifiying force in society.
Whether those institutions are political, religious, social or educational, they no longer command the loyalty or respect by people as they once did. Instead, communities of causes have replaced them and is seen in Crouch's Polarity trend.
This emerging trend is really the mixture of several changes.
A shift from a global to a local perspective as locus of solution making.
The impracticality of one-size-fits-all approaches to solving social and econonic problems is reflected in the persistance of the recession in its many forms. This a product of the growing complexity of society that responds better to small, local initiatives than those applied from a single source.
A shift from a national orientation to a relational one.
As I've written previously, online technology enables us to work with colleagues globally as if we are locally connected. National origin means less, and personal values mean more in this context of local collaboration on a global scale.
The emergence of belief as the common bond that unites people organizationally.
One doesn't have to look farther than the passionate advocacy of the environmental movement or the Tea Party movement to see how traditional institutions are being replaced my groups of people who form temporary communities to advocate for a cause. This puts institutional elites at a disadvantage as institutional integrity has been less about causes or beliefs and more about process and operational integrity.
These are some trends that I see, and see them as positive developments. However, there are aspects of these changes that I don't think are quite yet apparent, yet will bring a new level of disruptive change as they emerge.
Many of the governing assumptions of our time are based on social, political and economic philosophies that were born in the era of The Leopard. I'm convinced that the ideologies of capitalism, liberal progressivism and its socialist varient, and individualism will come to be replaced by new ideas that provide a way forward. It is my impression that we think these are given, guiding assumptions of contemporary society. I'm not convinced that these philosophies represent the future, but the past. It is why I see the two political parties as regressive, rather than visionary. As these ideologies lose their vitality and relevance, their advocates have become more divisive and defensive. In my opinion, this divisiveness is a sign of the fading viability of these social philosophies.
If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd wager that the future trends that we'll see emerging over the next few years are:
New organizational structures that are designed for shared responsibility and collaboration.
Values as the unifying force, not only in organizations, but in society.
New confederations of cities and organizations that circumvent the artificial constraints of state and national boundaries.
Lastly, what should leaders do to be prepared to adapt to these changes?
1. Develop the leadership capacity of everyone in your organization.
3. Take time to develop an understanding of the logic of what is happening locally and globally. Test assumptions, and be positively self-critical. In other words, think for yourself by constantly seeking to develop your capacity to observe, think, assess and make judgments.
My wish for each of us in 2011 is that we find new strength of purpose, greater capacity for leadership, and an ability to make a difference that matters that changes our world for the better. All the best to you in your leadership endeavors.