Socialogy Interview: Maddie Grant

I learned about Maddie Grant because of the recent Manifesto she wrote on the future of work, which was recommended by several contacts. After reading it, I immediately asked for an interview.

About Maddie Grant

Maddie Grant

As Maddie describes herself at Social Fish, where she is Chief Social Media Strategist,

Blogging and digital curation are my true calling; I write about social media strategy, building Open Community, humanizing business. I am a classic Gen-X early adopter and also a big picture thinker; I like to always stay ahead of the curve. I was born in Bangkok but grew up in Washington DC and consider myself for all intents and purposes a true (and rare) DC native.

She is the co-author — with Jamie Notter — of Humanize: how people-centric organizations succeed in a social world.

The Interview

Stowe Boyd: I read your future of work manifesto (see The Future of Work: A Manifesto) with great interest. Your initial thesis is that people should bring their whole selves to work, to make work more human. I have said many times that we have moved pretty far along the path from the old industrial set-up, where a worker followed a rule, and in today’s contemporary entrepreneurial culture, employees fill roles. The next shift — to a new way of work — is to allow people to be whole. So the progression is rule, role, whole. But we have a long way to go, right?

Maddie Grant: Yes, we’re not there yet, but, as you say, we shouldn’t discount the progress we’ve made. Maybe it’s just me as a classic Gen Xer, but the rise of “Free Agent Nation” over the past few decades has helped move the needle on human beings being more complete through their work, perhaps laying the foundation for what we’re now facing. Now the challenge is to enable that to happen in organizations more broadly.

We’re seeing “cracks in the foundation” — or a glitch in the Matrix, to use a metaphor we used in our book Humanize — in many many places. Newer startups are putting culture first and foremost — and getting rid of HR departments entirely. — Maddie Grant

I’m encouraged by some of the stories I’ve come across, frankly. There are managers out there actually helping employees find a new job when the position doesn’t match who they are, and having huge (and successful) companies like Zappos take a stand on authenticity is a promising sign.

We’re seeing “cracks in the foundation” — or a glitch in the Matrix, to use a metaphor we used in our book Humanize — in many many places. Newer startups are putting culture first and foremost — and getting rid of HR departments entirely. We spoke with a group of HR people at a conference recently — they seemed well aware that the traditional processes for recruitment and professional development are eroding right before their eyes. Which to us is a good thing, of course.

SB: Will HR’s work just be distributed to other people, or will recruitment and the other work that HR people do be radically changed?

MG: I believe it will be radically changed. Actually my favorite section of the Manifesto is the section about rethinking the role of management — to things like being the “keeper of the story” and the conduit for the right data at the right time. I could write a whole new section just like that for the reinvention of HR. What if HR’s responsibility was to hire for culture fit? Or to ensure a level of “flow” of people throughout the system, so that everyone had a better understanding of the whole system?

SB: You state ‘Human beings are the most important asset we have’. I disagree with the characterization of people as assets. Perhaps you might have spun this more like Esko Kilpi, who wrote ‘It is not the corporation that is in the center, but the intentions and choices of individuals’?

MG: Yes, you caught me on that one. ;) The “most valuable asset” phrase is straight out of the old paradigm, but sometimes we have to get people’s attention using familiar language! But you obviously discerned the message: humans are at the heart of all this. (And frankly, we don’t treat people as assets in the “valuable element” sense of the word.) For the last 100 years we’ve been managing based on a mechanical mindset—that organizations can be designed in the abstract, that centralized logic ultimately drives results, and that the role of the humans is to do our jobs as cogs. The social media revolution alone, in the last decade, has turned that idea on its head. The users have become the creators. Now it’s time for management to see a similar revolution. And it’s not that our management structures all go away and we descend into chaos. It’s simply that we now have the opportunity to tap into the power of the “intentions and choices of individuals” in ways we could not see before. In that sense, I think the sky is the limit once we figure this out.

Peter Senge (a great resource on systems thinking) defines leadership as “the capacity of the human community to shape its future.” Who is “responsible” for transparency in a system like that? All of us. — Maddie Grant

SB: Your manifesto seems to be addressing a new compact between the organization and the individual, and some of the attributes of both. However, many of the elements of your manifesto do not make clear who is being spoken of. For example, ‘Strategic trans­parency is the only way to achieve trust; trust is the only way to maximize the value of the people in a system.’ Who is responsible for this transparency?

MG: The key here is in understanding systems, I think. The manifesto is written in a way that different people can interpret it depending on their own position. When we view systems in traditional terms, we tend to look for the “top” or “center” of the system to find the people in charge. They would be responsible for the transparency (or somehow making it happen). We also would call that small group of elites “leaders” in our system. But Peter Senge (a great resource on systems thinking) defines leadership as “the capacity of the human community to shape its future.” Who is “responsible” for transparency in a system like that? All of us. The system learns to generate more transparency and more trust, because it learns that doing so actually helps people in the system to shape their own future more effectively. I know that embracing this will be a shock to our current system—where people have developed expectations about who is “in charge” of what. But I think that the more quickly we embrace this shock and find alternatives, the better off we will be.

SB: I like the Senge line a lot because it implies that leadership emerges, rather than being a function of role or title. I favor the emergent leadership notion, where people step forward to lead when it’s needed and they have the skills or perspective neccessary, and then are willing to let others lead at other times.

MG: Yes! And this is one of the characteristics of humanized, management-less workplaces like the oft-written-about WL Gore — where leadership happens when someone steps up to lead something, whoever and whatever that may be. Or the idea that a leader is someone who calls a meeting and people show up.

SB: Socialogy interviews alway include a final question regarding the application of science to business. What scientific field do you think is most relevant to improving the way we work?

MG: First, I’m extremely interested in the growing field of network science — nodes and connectedness, social network analysis, visualization, spread of content, all that cool social media stuff (I can’t be a good digital strategist without some interest in that!) Beyond that, and related to that, I’m not sure “complexity science” has graduated into a specific scientific field, as it draws from biology, economics, subatomic physics, and the like, but that’s the first place I would look these days. There’s a part of science that is about perfecting, clarifying, and narrowing down, and then there’s the part that’s about exploring, uncovering, and identifying new things. Given the huge transition we’re in right now—from the mechanical age of management to a human age—I think it’s important to be inspired by the theoretical, explorational side of science. Our challenge now is not to perfect, or even to understand. Our challenge is to invent. These two kinds of sciences put together (networks and complexity) may be the key to co-creating the future of work we want.

SB: Thanks for your time, Maddie.

MG: Thank you for the opportunity!!

Note: This and many other articles in the Socialogy series were originally published at This was originally published here on 2014–06–06.

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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