If our organisations are going to survive and prosper in this new era of exponential change then we need to address the way they’re organised and managed. To do this our primary task, particularly at the start, is to question long-held (and now very unhelpful) assumptions:
Assumption: We don’t take our personal values and ethics to work
Corporations are today amongst society’s least trusted organisations. But it’s not only the typical corporate with a trust or behavioural problem. We see the same issue in reference to the other spheres of society: media, politics, sport and our religious institutions.
Within organisations, employees often feel that management is neither sincerely interested in their well-being nor taking decisions that reflect their personal values. The demoralising effect of working within an organisation that does not reflect your values and humanity cannot be understated.
Assumption: Deviating from the plan should only happen in a crisis
Status quo organisations are not built to evolve quickly - and certainly not to undergo something more akin to a revolution, which is what they now need. It has become the norm to change only as a result of a crisis. Most likely, everyone agrees this is far from ideal. But the strategic planning norm and the behaviour it encourages has entrenched this “change at a crisis point” as a behavioural assumption. We need to redesign our organisations with adaptability at their core because we now operate in a fast-changing, complex environment. By keeping teams small, ensuring that every employee feels valued and empowered to make changes and experiment with new ideas, our organisations can become truly adaptable.
Assumption: Work is separate from the rest of our lives
We need an army of intrinsically motivated employees. The status quo workplace is an environment that drains passion and erodes an individual’s sense of motivation, identity and creative control - all essential elements for encouraging intrinsic motivation. Most of us do not bring our passion to work, in fact, it is common to feel that we cannot even be our true selves at work. To overcome this sad state of affairs the priority for leaders must be to focus on creating organisations that fuel employees’ passions and spark their imagination resulting in a place where joyful innovation will thrive.
Assumption: People only need to know what they need to know
Status quo organisations often default to operating on a ‘need to know basis’. Information can be closely guarded by those at the top of the hierarchy. This attitude undermines attempts to make those lower down the hierarchy feel like meaningful members of the organisation. It also discounts their ability to help with issues the organisation might be facing. 21st Century Organisations will default to freedom of information, openness and will encourage contribution at all levels from all stakeholders.
Assumption: People need managing to be motivated and effective
Our current management structure operates on the premise that humans will not sufficiently motivate themselves, so, therefore, need ‘managing’ in order to work well. There is also a common assumption that only some individuals are ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’ where others are not. These beliefs are unhelpful, untrue and feed a foundation of distrust; a distrust that feeds a cycle of bureaucracy.
Assumption: Success requires a tough stance, not empathy
Empathy is required just for empathy’s sake: a more empathetic culture, with the support and guidance it brings, is a more joyous and sustainably minded culture. But it is also needed to retain an engaged and effective workforce. People need flexibility, understanding, encouragement and genuine relationships with peers and managers to thrive and bring their whole creative and innovative selves to work. Fostering empathy in an organisation makes this possible. Empathy also enables us to see problems and opportunities in a different light which makes not only for better ways forward but a more accurate understanding of risk.
Assumption: This is how things are and will always be
Whilst all these things are urgently needed, organisations wishing to make this transition will face huge institutional and personal opposition to change. Our legal, educational and cultural norms are like a structural framework that supports the status quo: our children pour out of school ill-equipped for life and work in the 21st Century; our tax system is not set up for an economy characterised by empathy and generosity; our governance frameworks encourage short-term shareholder primacy; our mental models of what business and investment should look like are entrenched. This change will not come easily. But it is well worth the effort.