Moving from ‘Normal’ Organizations to ‘Revolutionary’ Organizations

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. | Steven Hawking

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Hawking sets context for what I have been calling a ‘movement’ since 2005 or so, the movement to drive a transition from ‘normal’ industrial-era organizations that are role-centered, closed, slow-and-tight, hierarchical, and backward-focused to ‘revolutionary’ post-industrial-era organizations that are human-centered, open, fast-and-loose, heterarchical, and forward-focused. Like other movements, this work revolution is defined by the dynamics of opposing forces. On one side, we have those who explicitly or implicitly uphold the principles and cultural foundations of ‘normalcy’, and who actively or passive-aggressively oppose those, on the other side, who advocate revolutionary change in work culture, practices, and values.

I’ve picked the terms ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ with intention. Specifically, I have borrowed them from Thomas Kuhn’s central arguments in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a work that laid out the analogous dynamics in scientific revolutions.

Kuhn argued that there is a cyclic form to science, where the work of a generation of scientists in any given field establishes a paradigm around which research and discourse are centered, like Newtonian physics. It started with various incoherent notions of motion (the pre-paradigm phase), but the central premises of gravity and Newton’s laws of motion led to the development of a second phase, where ‘normal’ science began, and the dominant paradigm structured the science for a considerable period of time, establishing consensus on terminology, methods, and the sorts of experiments that might lead to increased insights[1].

Over time, normal science may lead to anomalies in findings — unexpected results from experiments, questions that can’t be answered — and these can lead to questioning the old paradigm as its weaknesses are apparent. This can lead to crisis, and that can spark a paradigm shift, like quantum physics as an alternative to Newton’s.

The crisis and the shift are not necessarily smooth, and there is often active disagreement and contention between the advocates of the previous, ‘normal’ paradigm, and the revolutionaries pushing for the new paradigm. This can lead to breaks in the scientific discipline, with huge controversies and great antagonism, since the reputations and livelihoods of the scientists are at stake.

At some point, the crisis ends, usually as a result of the establishment of a new paradigm, which eventually becomes ‘normal’ mainstream science, with new methods, terminology, and established approaches for experimentation.

We are at a time of such a crisis, although it’s not in the traditional realm of science, per se. The crisis is in the world of business, and it is really predicated on scientific revolutions in several areas that impinge on business, namely cognitive science, behavioral economics, social psychology, and related fields. (And in the background behind the soft incursion of these revelatory social science findings, we can feel the looming hard technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.)

In the past few decades, enormous advances have been made in our understanding of how people perceive the world and their relationships to others, how we reason (or don’t), how people ‘make decisions’, how productive teams ‘work’, and how cultural norms impact our behavior. However, very little of this science has reached the C-suite. Consider, as only one example, the persistent problems related to diversity and the foundational issues of cognitive bias. However, few in leadership are educated in these issues, and no coherent new paradigm of organizational theory and practice has yet fully emerged.

At present, we are left with the strange dichotomy of entrepreneurial capitalism — with capital growth and shareholder value as the highest aims — and the independent considerations of making the world a better place, making the workplace more equitable, just, and less precarious, and attempting to construct the world of work so that people can achieve greater autonomy, meaning, and purpose in their lives, and not just a paycheck. These cross forces define a growing area of tension in the discourse about the future of work, the transformation of the 21st-century business, and how to balance the desires of the many sorts of people holding stakes in these companies.

At the same time, we see growing interest in the principle that a revolution is business operations is needed to confront and overcome a long list of ‘anomalies’ in business and the economic sphere. The combination of increased economic pressures in a sped-up, global marketplace and the desire for greater stability and purpose for everyone at work leads to some broad trends that could stand as a proxy for the ‘revolution’ in organizational theory and practice:

  • Human-centered not role-centered. We lose a great deal when we limit people to only thinking about or acting on a limited set of activities in business. A machine press operator can have a brilliant insight that saves the copy millions, and a field sales lead can come back from a meeting with a customer suggestion for a breakthrough new product. But not if they are punished for stepping outside the painted lines on the floor. People can be larger than their job descriptions if we let them.
  • Open not closed models of thinking and operations. This means a ‘yes, and’ mindset, where we consider alternatives rather than rejecting them because they are novel. This means actively rooting out systemic anti-creative and anti-curiosity patterns in business dogma. It means embracing Von Foerster's Empirical Imperative: Always act to increase the set of possibilities.
  • Fast-and-loose not slow-and-tight operations. Agile, flexible, and adaptive methods of organizing, cooperating, and leading are needed. A less bureaucratic management style would increase innovation, and lead to building business operations around experiments rather than only well-established processes.
  • Heterarchical, not hierarchical operations. The bronze age rule of kings — supposedly selected by the gods and legitimized by their personal charisma — has led to terrible results, with narcissistic sociopaths all too often calling the shots. The occasional Steve Jobs or Yves Chouinard does not disprove the problems inherent to top-down-only organizations, especially in a time of great change and uncertainty. Organizational structure is another means to the ends that companies are created to effect, and serves as a powerful barrier to change when treated as sacred and inviolable.
  • Forward-focused, not tradition-bound. We need to adopt a new paradigm for business, one that explicitly breaks with a great deal of what passes for conventional wisdom, organized around new science, new forms of social connection, and leveraging the possibilities in the points made above. And science is not standing still, so we must incorporate new understanding into our work and the operations of business.

This is predicated upon stating — explicitly — that a revolution is necessary, and that a long list of practices and principles will need to be identified as problematic and rooted out. This is exactly what I founded Work Futures to do, as a research and educational institute, and in 2019 I intend to push hard to advance that agenda.

This revolution has started, but we are in the early days of what will eventually — decades from now, perhaps — be a wholesale recasting of business. But the world of work cannot be changed independently of the larger world. It is one part of a larger set of changes that envelope and animate it.

The larger societal and economic trends touched on in the post this is extracted from (see An End To Predictions, A Call For Revolution) — Polarization and Populism, Capitalism and Gigantism, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution — are imparting enormous stress on the human sphere. And, as a result, it is very hard to predict what will happen in 2019. However, I believe that by 2023 a great deal of the revolution — this transition from the ‘normal’ to a ‘revolutionary’ form of business — will have become more clear, as the new paradigm becomes more well-defined, and as the larger world shifts to internalize new approaches to the tectonic forces at work, at all scales.

Originally published at

Written by

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

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