One in an occasional series on best business practices.
Last month the Wall Street Journal posted an article with the arresting title, The End of Management, Corporate bureaucracy is becoming obsolete. Why managers should act like venture capitalists. Adapted from writer Alan Murray’s The Wall Street Journal’s Essential Guide to Management, 2010, the article looked at the arc of the corporate structure through the 20th century and what has changed as a culture of collaborative innovation, largely brought on by the Internet, has seeped into the workplace.
What has changed, really?
The most successful businesses, whether public, private, or non-profit, have found ways to harmonize the crumbling corporate hierarchy model with a culture of creative risk among workers, resulting more in a team of peers tackling emerging projects than a structure of defined roles with limited task fields.
Hierarchy hasn’t disappeared entirely, in part because we may still be in a transition between models. What is clear is that businesses and managers who wish to give orders from on high, irrespective of workers’ talents and their desire to contribute meaningfully to the organization, will likely find their business going by the wayside, insupportable in an age where the culture of collaboration is increasingly the norm.
I’m too important
Contrast this with blogging superstar and author Seth Godin’s book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable, which, while it recognizes similar cultural features in the at-will problem solving arena, does so under the supposition of YOU, YOU, YOU.
Godin’s case underscores the same egotism of the dying paradigm, where YOU are more important than WE. The vulnerability in this model also fails to take into account when you die unexpectedly, face crisis, or otherwise leave the job, including as a result of a doubly unexpected pink slip. (Hey, it can happen to YOU, too, our lil’ linchpin.)
The very notion of indispensability suggests the place can’t go on without you, while subtly positioning competition over collaboration. That’s no model for today’s more deeply expressed innovation and organizational agility, where the ability to not only continue, but thrive, as participants come and go, offers a far more compelling DNA model. Further, YOUR amazing contribution can only really fly if the cultural disposition of the organization allows for and welcomes YOUR superstar indispensability role. One person does not a culture make.
Change is the only constant
While change happens whether we like it or not, our willingness to be open to change and new models comes less easily. I can just hear a manager, CEO, or department head blustering back about this article that the place would fall apart if the inmates ran the asylum. But in fact, what cultural observers and managers are finding is that the inmates are doing exactly that, from Wikipedia to Open Source software, to very specific corporate models where workers are given specific days to work on side projects, or where a worker can join a project team based purely on interest and a desire to contribute even when it falls outside or far outside their traditional departmental duties.
It takes trust
For businesses and managers wishing to move away from existing hierarchical and departmental models that are beginning to feel stale in an age where the overall culture is decentralizing and cross-pollinating daily, one tactic may be to bring in an Open Space Technology consultant (or even study and facilitate the model yourself) as a way to shake up the foundations. Technology here does not refer to software and other practical business tools, but rather to a way of exploring, brainstorming, problem-solving, and project-generating that draws on deep collaboration within a culture of human-level equals. Everyone is on board, no matter their role in the business model. For example, a local receptionist may be in an Open Space session with the corporate CEO from central HQ working together as co-equals to discover and implement promising new solutions to whatever questions are posed in the Open Space session.
Shaktari Belew, an Oregon-based artist and pioneering psychologist who uses Open Space Technology models in training sessions for the Transition Town movement says that businesses have said they achieved nine months of work in three days time by using Open Space Technology to bring the entire team on board for a major business shift or broad project initiation.
The thing is you have to be ready to listen as much as lead, to learn as much as teach, to step back in order to move forward. It starts with checking your ego at the door and trusting that the bottom line might be even more compelling when workers are seen as more than workers, but as humans, with all their latent talent and purpose and drive present at the table of collaboration.
For business to thrive in the new era, we’ve got to open up, and let it in.