A Manifesto For A New Way Of Work

We need a revolution in our thinking about business, and how we organize ourselves to accomplish work, as individuals, networks, and businesses.

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Photo by Rochelle Brown on Unsplash

We need a revolution in our thinking about business, and how we organize ourselves to accomplish work, as individuals, networks, and businesses. I intend to explore this revolution through writing A New Way of Work during the course of 2015.

This new form factor of work cannot be a soft layering of a handful of new ideas on top of the enduring premises of today’s way of work. We’ve tried that before. It’s what we have today, really. A few innovations have been adopted over the past few decades, like the first wave of information technology, employee empowerment, matrixed organizations, and social media. These have led to some modest successes in some areas, but the underlying premises of business have remained the same since the start of the industrial era. The management and organizational model that arose in the early 20th century has only been moderated by these innovations of the later 20th century.

While the coercive controls of early industrialism have gradually transitioned toward a more consensus-based managerial regime, and hierarchies have flattened, businesses remain profoundly undemocratic on the whole. Today’s late industrial form factor of work is a tailored version of its predecessor, but it is the same fabric and style. It is not as slow to change as the industrial behemoths of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s day, but today’s way is too slow and tight for the economy we are now in: the postnormal.

The changes necessary to accommodate the postnormal are sweeping. As just the most obvious example, success in this brave new world will require rewiring work patterns with next generation web-based social and mobile tools — new way tools — at the core of business, not as an afterthought. These tools will serve as the actual basis of business operations not as an adjunct or support for unmediated business operations. A new generation of work management tools is coming that will, to quote Ginni Rometty of IBM, serve as your production line, not as your water cooler.

Advocating this agenda is naturally oppositional, not just ambling toward a shiny new future. This new way of work is explicitly and loudly a break with — and even at times a condemnation of — the ways of the past.

Perhaps the single most important characteristic of this new, postnormal way of work is its embrace of a scientific understanding of the human mind and human sociality, based on research findings from cognitive science, social networks, and organizational psychology. This is a rejection of the folklore that underlies a great deal of the explicit and implicit baggage of today’s management practices. What is emerging is a break with the orthodoxies of the industrial age, one much like the movement that spread across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, whose advocates came to be known as ‘freethinkers’. Freethinkers hold that beliefs should be grounded on reason, derived from facts, scientific inquiry, and rational analysis, independent of logical fallacies and cognitive biases, and should sidestep the barriers of authority, conventional wisdom, prejudice, tradition, myths, and all other dogma.

Most of what defines freethinking about work is a displacement of practices and cultural norms. The reality is there can’t be a permanent compromise between freethinking and earlier dogma, and it may be necessary to quickly make adjustments, transitioning to a new basis for work. A baby may spend nine months in the womb, but its birth is necessarily of only a few hours duration.

Here are the major theses of A New Way of Work, which will be chapters or sections of the eventual work coming out of my investigations:

  • Dissent (versus Consensus) — Active and directed dissent is a better way to counter the cognitive biases of groups and individuals, and to sidestep groupthink. This is essential to increased innovation and creativity truly driving business.
  • Cooperative (versus Collaborative) — The new way of work sidesteps the politics and collectivism of consensus-based decision making, and shifts to looser, laissez-faire cooperative work patterns.
  • Creativity (versus Tradition) — We are in a time when new solutions to problems need to be contrived, and traditional approaches may be not only broken but dangerous.
  • Autonomy (versus Heteronomy) — Paradoxically, as we come into a time when we acknowledge that we are more connected to each other than ever before, a great degree of autonomy will become the norm. The old demands to subordinate all personal interests to those of the collective will be displaced by a personal reengagement in our own work and a commitment to a deeper work culture that transcends any one company’s corporate culture.
  • (Hyper)democracy (versus Oligarchy) — Today’s management theory and organizational structure is basically a holdover from the earliest days of the industrial age, a time prior to democracy, when monarchies ruled. Businesses today are oligarchies, where the few lead the many. In recent decades, there has been a transition from coercive controls to more consensual ones, but if we are to move fast enough to compete in the new economy we will have to more to a hyper lean, agile democratic form factor for work.
  • Fast-and-loose (versus Slow-and-tight) — Companies need to become much looser — higher degrees of autonomy and voluntary association into working teams — in order to run faster, increase innovation, and provide the sort of environment that top performers best operate in.
  • Laissez-faire (versus Entrepreneurial) — The growing uncertainties in complex, interconnected, global economy means that predicting the future and judging risks has become extremely difficult if not impossible. Therefore, the notion of organizing any reasonably sized company around a single ‘official future’ is broken. We’ll need to adopt a laissez-faire operating system for business, where many experiments based on different hypotheses can run in parallel, instead of lining up all the troops and making them march to a single unified strategic plan.
  • Hyperlean (versus Waterfall) — All business operations will transition away from top-down, long-term, waterfall-style models to a bottom-up, short-term, hyperlean approach. Those closest to the problem will work on its solution, and divvy up the pieces in a way that makes sense to them, and refactor as needed.
  • Small-and-Simple (versus Large-and-Complex) — The technological advances that will disrupt markets and patterns of business in the future will increasingly be small-and-simple, but paradoxically, may force the reevaluation of everything, like file sync-and-share applications, which are destabilizing the enterprise software market.
  • Open and Public (versus Closed and Private) — The number one factor today in work happiness is the transparency of management practices, and that happiness is likewise reflected in higher engagement at work.
  • Emergent Strategy (versus Deliberate Strategy) — The nature of strategy changes in a time of great change, when the future is difficult to foresee. The role of leadership changes with it, as well. Instead of concocting a strategic vision and pushing it out to the organization through cultural and managerial channels — the deliberate style of strategy — leadership must shift to distributed, action-based strategic learning about what is actually happening in the market: emergent strategy. This, as Henry Mintzberg observed, does not mean chaos, but unintended order.

The new way of work is as big a break with the industrial model as the industrial model was with the time of artisanal and agricultural work that preceded the rise of steam power and electricity. Unlike that transition, however, we will not be looking for inspiration from armies, or the slave battalions that built the pyramids. No, instead we will look to nature, or the growth of cities for inspiration.

The fast-and-loose business that is emerging as the new way of work runs more like a forest or a city than a machine. We need to learn by imitating rich ecosystems, where the appearance of chaos yields to emergent order, and reject order imposed by fiat.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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