There’s so much to say.
A lot about: New Organization, New Work, New Mindset.
Five years ago, a brief speech would have sufficed. Now, there’s so much more to talk about: there are too many facets, too much variance. Let us highlight only a few of the aspects that we have encountered in our internal discussions and client conversations.
We see much that is steady, but also encounter change, experiments, transgressions, innovative approaches. This is happening on all levels: companies establish new forms of organization, groups experience new dynamics of social cohesion, individuals have new life designs that do not follow the career mainstream.
What’s driving it all?
At first glance, companies might be driven by the fear of losing touch: losing touch with Chinese dynamism, maybe. They may also be driven by a loss of trust in the European success story: systematic planning, project management and cascade plans used to be so successful. Maybe they are driven by a reluctance to believe the prophecies made by strategic departments? Maybe it’s the need to confront the fact that people are doubting management quality? Might it be the very wide-spread loss of trust in the »elites«? And maybe, because that much is clear as daylight, it is the fact that we are ever more frequently confronted by non-linear, dynamic, non-deterministic systems: on the markets, in competition, in society, in the communities of our own companies. All of that after we had worked so hard to design our world in a linear, dynamic and deterministic way. All the whys and wherefores will not give us a single cause. We can however, find out about conditions, conditionalities, relativity and relations.
One condition for NEW WORK is immediately apparent. There is a trend that has long been on a steady rise, both globally and in our society: more and more individual freedom. This is particularly apparent in urban realms with their minimum of social control and many pockets of difference within which groups and belonging are free to grow.
Self-determination is the name of the game: a person’s own individuality and its recognition by society; what used to be known as self-realization. Fashionable motivation theories call it autonomy and learning (growing) now, and link it to the notion of being purpose-guided. It has become an elemental aspect of business culture. Purpose has replaced the notion of creating vision and mission. This underlines the challenge at the very core of the situation: how do we strike a balance between individual and joint needs, and how do we give that balance some stability? How is it possible for an individual’s purpose to be shared, and how much stability can this have? Lurking behind these questions is the link between solidarity and individual identity. Individuality and the quality of communitization are interlinked, and together they make the new forms of working so interesting, so exciting and at the same time so challenging. We are in the process of abandoning big brother and his shelter.
This freedom of the many, the vivid diversity of multitude obviously pushes complexity. In permitting this diversity and these individualities, we become aware of the loss of a binding moral institution that gives us shelter. The yearning for such an institution is apparent on the political level as well as inside companies. Unfortunately, it is a quest that is not forward-looking but instead linked to a growing yearning for the old style of authority; psycho-analysis speaks of father figures who will fix everything. New Work is taking another path; New Work wants to design a form of freedom that also permits collaboration and community.
Let us highlight some aspects that we encounter in our work; there are no simple recipes.
Agile organizations essentially constitute the quest for an organization that is able to adapt fast, reduce its inwards gaze and enable effective outside perspectives within small units. Decades ago, Zygmunt Bauman already referred to this notion as a fluid organization. We have the blueprints, but the social and psychological dynamics of such organizations bring out many unresolved issues.
Not everyone likes such a change, there are sceptics, there are defendants of durability (they are usually men) who are worried about their loss of power. Let us move beyond those trivial aspects of our work in order to discover more:
Escaping into method
Methods are useful and necessary, but they are at best half the ticket. We are somewhat amazed at how reliably the available set of methods is expanded more and more, in order to eventually lead back to the very landscape of tiny processes that was supposed to be reduced or even abolished by way of the new organizations. Method descriptions provide safety, they relieve individuals from the burden of design and they are often an escape from freedom. We need freedom, however, if we want to achieve flexibility and the wealth of diversity. Methods are too often an escape from the opportunity to be effective and the responsibility that comes with it.
Lacking group dynamics skills
What happens when we even out hierarchies and script each person’s role in such a way as to enable individual responsibility? We lack a grasp of group dynamics and socio-dynamic processes. We are enticed by empathy, but that is difficult in itself and moreover does not suffice when people are left alone to design informal social leadership processes that per definition do not offer emotional support. It’s time to learn group dynamics skills. Informal leadership opens the floodgates for egotists and narcissists; we are all aware of the damage bullying can do from schools. We need to learn group dynamics by experience.
We want your soul, your heart
This becomes more important as the division between work and private life is increasingly blurred. We are joining two identities that used to be separate. We are doing so because we have learned that new organizations need the whole person and not only the time that they are willing to give up. The old deal was easy: a person gets money and security (the famous golden watch at the end) and in return the company gets an agreed amount of time, obedience and loyalty. We cannot maintain that approach as soon as we start to believe in the motivational force of a purpose, that a human being will become wholly involved because their own sense of self and that of work are ever more congruous. It is not possible to buy a person’s heart and soul. In order to enable people to fully commit themselves, a company needs to offer more: places, rooms, spaces, relationships, social structures, concepts that provide meaning. This includes the freedom to take up an offer for a limited period of time as well as the freedom to leave again. In the long-term, company boundaries will become more fluid. Their pull as a »place of life« will gain significance.
Purpose is finite
Purpose often arrives with some gravitas. It likes to have a never-ending touch. That is limiting. We’re not here on a journey of life to find one single purpose that we have to follow. Our energy and our commitment finds many meanings and purposes, as well as social groups in which to live these. They will guide us for some time before we leave them behind for something else that carries more meaning in a new phase of life. This relates to the second meaning of Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of a fluid organization. As persons, we are fluid within our organizations, and at the same time increasingly also between organizations and even between different life concepts. Companies are tasked with constantly creating and recreating new places and structures that are inviting and that offer a range of meanings and purposes so that they can attract people looking for meaning and purpose. We need to learn to understand that fluidity itself is a stable state.
In our tradition of work, we consider the psychological focus of a person and their constitution highly significant within moments of change. How do people learn their part, find their potential within new environments, how do we give them the opportunity to re-invent themselves even in ways that were hitherto inconceivable? We need, for example, to cut deep down into the coaching and leadership training systems and their rarely challenged normative basic assumptions. By working laterally and looking into lateral possibilities, we abandon the previously dominant vertical outlook, which still shapes the career usually offered by organizations. Career was until now coupled with the hope and pain of ascent. It will receive a new definition: career is ever more about the ability to keep finding attractive places, to consider oneself fluid. However, this is where companies soon reach the boundaries of their society: it is still the as-cending heroes who are the heroes.
How do we learn?
We have reached a question: what are the concepts of life that we are forming people for? Gregory Bateson’s differentiation between the first and second order of learning is gaining relevance. The PISA-guided approach is hardly going to bring us forward, because it does no more than train and teach what is tried and tested – in an old and stable world. We need to learn for a new world, for that which we have not yet practised. That means that we need to open up towards a sector of our society that we like to put into a category of itself, an isolated place of the lucky few: the arts. The arts can teach us more about the future than any strategy and marketing department of large companies and consultancies can. Long before companies were able to name what they now call VUCA, a performative turn showed us the significance of an event, a disruption, and what it means to be able to act in flow. Modern-day managers have become rather hostile towards the arts, however.
The Joy of Difference
Another increasingly apparent issue is diversity and what it entails. This key word is about more than sheer statistics – quotas for women, Indian employees, LGBTIQ*s, etc. We are learning to respect each other, we are learning to address difference and to act in such a way that we are more likely to find wealth than exclusion. Agility is not truly possible where diversity has not been addressed. It begins with those little differences that used to be ignored in the old world of work (separation of work and private life). Significant energies are stifled by silence and the absence of a platform for expression. Working with so many different Asian cultures, I have learnt that we have not really achieved anything until people say »you have touched my heart« and until they have touched my heart. That is the point where we begin to have respect for each other and are therefore with each other.
Mindset Change, that Magic Formula
Sounds simple. What is it about? There are many ways to describe it. It includes shifting from inside–to-outside thinking and acting to outside–to-inside thinking and acting. It includes moving from being a prisoner of the inbox to opening the outbox. Are you aiming to come forward or to come along? Whichever way it’s phrased, it is always about moving away from a self-centred perspective. It’s hardly a world-shattering innovation, but it is nevertheless important because the ego-maximisers have been at the centre of the economy and of economic science for too long. Ego-maximisers have been engaged in a battle for dwindling resources, and have been considered the guarantors of dynamism, while the cooperative members of a community were the dull members of a herd. This is Darwinism at its simplest; many realized early on that a true egotist must abandon egotism in order to cooperate and base their success on cooperation. The Christian world used to follow the adage that it is better to give than to receive. Cooperation is not another method or a new trick of egotism following Buddhist self-optimization concepts. It is the experience that joy, fulfilment and happiness can be found in collaboration, in the very reduction of the self. That which we now know as cooperation or collaboration can change the underlying structure of our own thinking and emotion by bringing us out into the world. This enables us to overcome difference, boundaries and belonging in order to create something new.
I enjoy thinking back upon my conversations with Helm Stierlin, one of the founding fathers of systemic therapy, who understood cooperation to be an act of reciprocity. Cooperation was not a deal, but a struggle based in a relationship that gives the other person freedom. This appears to juxtapose the thesis of individualism, because the new forms of work hero-worship the collective. We act out our individualism within collectives, joining groups that allow us to feel accepted as we are and switching them according to the evolution of our identity.
In doing so, I retain my individuality in reciprocal cooperation and am at the same time part of a collective the carries responsibility for the whole. There is a spiritual aspect to be found here in the apparently abstract discussion of mindset: the notion of interconnectedness resonates strongly with the realization that the world we live in does not follow a linear and deterministic dynamic.
Can we think companies politically (after all)?
Everything we do these days is too little. We need to delve deeper into the way in which the future is addressed in companies (future means market, product, process, strategy, etc.) Agility is the ability to react fast and flexibly to change and to be able to act in forward-looking steps. If we take this concept and anchor it only in the operative units, then we will still be slow and remain likely to chose the paths that used to be successful in the past. The oligarchic structure of the company, where a more or less homogeneous group of people have long been separated into large programs (and have forgotten south, west and east in the process) and are the only ones to define the topics of an organization, leaves no room for New Work.
Organizational development needs to ask who is allowed to speak, who is heard, who has places to speak and to be listened to? This is a genuine process of discourse. It includes many different people in decisions that guide what will happen in the company and on the markets. It is hardly going to mean participation in ownership, but it will mean real participation in the design of the community that defines the company by way of active commitment. Our concepts of cutting out paths have demonstrated easy-to-follow ways that disrupt the oligarchic nature of companies and thereby give room to voices that are more likely than those of the long-serving managers to understand what the future will mean and where the company can find room for itself and its services within that future.
Last but not least, how do we change our own inner attitude to that which is new to us in these concepts of life? How do we understand what we are about to face? Let’s take a detour into the world of popular music to meet the heroes of a generation that doesn’t even have a letter yet.
Demographics – how radical are the changes to our life designs?
BTS is a Korean boy band (the first Korean band to reach number 1 in the US Billboard Charts with their song Idol). They are an utterly designed boy group. Every piece of information about them, their every utterance and movement is choreographed or curated. At the same time, they are the only K-Pop band who send political messages. Those messages are all about individualism at their core: be yourself, whoever you are or want to be. Their videos offer a range of models for identification (These groups always offer a range of types; imagine what it would do if we began appointing board members by that logic!) as well as a message of inclusion: you are a part of us, we are diverse and you belong. Their videos entail representations of a hyper-inclusive aesthetic. Their performances no longer differentiate between the surface (the performance) and real identities: the surfaces is all there is. Beuys has entered youth culture.
It simply disables profound thought – that which has foreground and background, appearance and essence, deep-seated platonic structure. There is no point to asking what’s behind it all if the surface is all there is.
What does that mean for the world of work? Is it the dissolution of a difference between a private and a work sphere? Is it the end of role play and therefore a new kind of authenticity? Are we seeing places of work that have become places of living where identity is formed and lived? Places of work as experience spaces that are accomplished in faster steps? Is it the weakening of continuities in favour of breaches and leaps? All of these are also aspects of New Work.
Let’s look at recent coaching experiences. Which life design blueprint do I use for my questions? How much is the whole setting still shaped by old company expectations? In her autobiography, Michelle Obama wrote about her grandfather, in whom she witnessed the bitterness of shattered dreams. I often encounter this bitterness among the middle management of large companies. While this bitterness can be sensed in the background of organizations, the world of the young is propelled forwards by the force of dreams. Let us follow the hope and not the bitterness.
Appendix: Accompanying Stories
Silence in the group. The silence lasted for over an hour. They were traumatised. It had started so well: working without hierarchies, working in small groups with joint interests, being able to do what they always wanted. Then came the blows: projects that were considered promising by the group were terminated for a strategic lack of budget. How does one part? How does one deal with being redirected, suddenly placed in projects and groups that are not the first and free choice? Group dynamics developed; informal leaders emerged. The latter had good social skills of manipulation, but were not really fit to meet the task of steering a group. There followed the organization’s desire to create real freedom from hierarchy and therefore the introduction of peer evaluation. That was the last straw: the group fell silent and had lost all their energy and initial commitment.
I talked to a works council member who was deeply concerned. Looking into the room, he saw that all the organized workers’ achievements for ergonomic improvement had been lost. Staff were sitting on wooden pallets, the scattering of available tables were completely unsuitable. He wondered what their backs will feel like after twenty years of working like this? The young people are removed from us, they no longer understand that works councils oppose the company in order to fight for a better solution for them. They deliver their fate to the masters at the very top.
During a coaching session, I met a very talented team leader who had just been notified by the CEO that he would be called up to the board governing a department that was set to be crucial in the future, skipping all steps of the hierarchy. At our first meeting, we spoke a lot about theatre and even more about literature. We compared our reading experiences in a delicate and extremely lively conversation. A year later, I found the same man still full of fire and energy, and I talked to him about what he had read in the last few months. He paled when he noticed that he had only been reading management guides. On reflection, he realized that his truest sense of ‘leadership’ came not from the guides but from the deeper layers of literature. He is reading again.
A manager is utterly perplexed. There is a highly talented woman under his leadership who does much more than is her due or within the scope of her position, and does so successfully. Being a caring person who champions fairness, he fought for her promotion and was proud to offer the young lady a better position. He expected her joy and gratitude, but received instead a friendly but decided rejection: she did not want her promotion. He asked her why. She answered, »As things are, I do what I do out of choice and enjoy doing it; if I take up your offer I will be obliged to do it. I don’t want that.«
Another conversation I had was with a courier who delivers internet order food from restaurants. I asked him if he knew he was being exploited. His salary is low; in order to get better shifts he is required to relinquish all his time to the needs of a company that has no duty to care for him; he even had to buy the carrier bag on his back himself and he uses his own bike. Why? Because I am free, he said, and that was all there was to say.
Last but not least: I met an ex-pat manager in Thailand making fun of the Thai belief in magic and laughing at gifts left in temples and the daily adoration of a shrine. An enlightened, hyper-modern, rational individual. It is the end of a long evening, as the ritual process of intoxication (cocktails largely today) draws to the close, when he tells me about his fantastic experiences with positive affirmation. He had found a service (they used to be called priests) who in return for a small charge sends him a positive affirmative sentence every morning to repeat to himself. It’s extremely effective, he said. He did not see the irony of the situation.
Thirty years ago, I met a Franciscan nun in a hospital. She was pushing a cart with books from room to room and spoke to the patients. Her speaking to people was probably the most important part of what she did. We struck up a conversation and I found out that this woman was at the bottom rung of the hierarchical ladder of the Franciscans. Only a year ago, she had been positioned in Rome as the abbess of the entire women’s order. There was no bitterness to her. She was happy and cheerful. Other approaches to hierarchies are not a new thing.