My dad passed away in 2015, before he could understand why I was leaving my starting career as a corporate lawyer in 2012 to dive into the world of organizational change and culture.
To him, the culture of a company -he worked in the industrial sector- was something that simply existed, but was composed in its entirety by two immovable or “read-only” elements: the low disposition of workers to do their actual work, and the love – or lack there of- the boss had for his collaborators (my Father, I must clarify, was a very passionate leader devoted to his teams).
— “How much can you actually change about the way we work? People work because they need to, not because they want to”, was what he thought.
I don’t blame him: Monterrey -and a significant part of Mexico in the last hundred years- enhanced the quality of life of millions of its habitants by becoming an industrialized city.
They did this following Frederick Taylor’s teachings. Taylor was an American consultant to whom workers – especially manual labour workers – were lazy and inept.
“Let’s separate thinking from doing, and trust the former only to the supervisors”, he wrote at the beginning of the 20th century.
But Taylor was wrong. The truth is that we all want to work to grow, to achieve great things. Why, then, are there so little fertile environments for those of us who actually want to feel fulfilled through our work?
Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan’s new book published on February 19, 2019, is the best explanation of why I changed my career, the best justification for all the efforts invested on changing the way we work, and the best framework on how to actually achieve this change.
The best work of your life
Dignan is founder of The Ready, an Org Design consulting firm based in Brooklyn, NYC, that has as a purpose helping organizations to discover new ways of working.
The book opens with a small anecdote. Dignan just finished an eight hour workshop in which he taught a group of executives to answer a question that guides every one of their consulting services: What is keeping you from doing the best work of your life?
While they moved to a restaurant, one of the managers made a question out loud in an attempt to answer Dignan’s original question:
– Why not eliminate our monthly objective review meeting? Does someone see any value in these meeting?
-No!-, everyone answered at once.
That meeting was costing the company about three million dollars annually.
“It doesn’t matter where in the world I go to, I always come across leaders and teams that feel frustrated”, the author reflects.
“Our clients are asking us to help them invent the future, but they are asking us to do so from inside of a dysfunctional working culture”.
What’s at stake
How do thinks work in the organization or company where you work? Would you say – using Dignan’s words- that you are doing the best work of your life? It is probable that the answer is no.
What do we loose if we don’t do anything about it and just get comfortable with seeing this everywhere?
Dignan tells us, in between the lines, that we could become a controlled and numbed humanity, just like the one we can read about in Brave New World, a novel by Aldous Huxley from which Dignan’s book title- and content- is inspired.
Here’s an even more interesting question: what happened if we change? what if we rethink the way we work in organizations? what’s in it for us?
The task is not easy: efficiency as a guiding principle, fear of risk, the perception that the employee is a number and a rigid hierarchy are realities that, although configured and combined in different ways, are the common denominator that prevails in the most of the big companies in our country.
Brave New Work is a guide to change this.
“What is hidden in each of our organizations is a series of assumptions that go unnoticed,” says Dignan.
To represent this, he makes a comparison between a traffic light and a roundabout at an intersection:
- Which of these (traffic light or roundabout) is safer?
- Which one facilitates traffic?
- Which is easier to build and maintain?
- Which one works best when the power goes out?
Roundabouts win every scenario.
“What if we build organizations like this?” Concludes the author. “Complex problems can be managed with simple rules and agreements that leave room for personal judgment.”
The dense part of the book is covered in the second part, titled The Operating System.
The concept is powerful: instead of trying to change the leaders or the culture – both are going to resist – Dignan suggests working on the Operating System of the organization. That is, in the assumptions about how things are done in that place.
In this section, Dignan addresses twelve themes or cultural elements of each organization. The themes are:
- Purpose: how we are guided by a purpose.
- Authority: how decisions are made.
- Structure: how we organize ourselves.
- Strategy: How a strategy is defined and executed.
- Resources: how we decide how to invest resources.
- Innovation: how we innovate.
- Workflow: How the work is divided and done.
- Meetings: what types of meetings do we have.
- Information: how we share and use information.
- Sense of belonging: how relationships are defined and cultivated.
- Growth: how we grow in the organization.
- Compensation: how we are paid.
Each of these topics constitutes a chapter: introduction, ideas that challenge the status quo, dynamics or tools to test, suggestions on how they relate to organizational change, and some questions that help you reflect on where your company stands.
The content is extremely powerful. Some free stories or ideas that caught my attention are:
- It is better to have a good purpose than to be 100% focused on your client: sometimes it is your duty to take your clients to new places.
- More freedom leads to more learning, and more learning leads to better performance.
- A Swedish bank where each branch has almost complete autonomy (the branch is the bank).
- Which structure is the best? The one that helps each company to run faster and be more adaptable.
- Every second Amazon introduces an enhancement to its software; At all times there are 10,000 working versions of Facebook (each one is testing improvements to controlled audiences).
- Red Team: dynamic where a team within the organization is commissioned to design the competitor that will eat up your market.
- The concept of cobudget.
- Practice from Buurztorg, a Dutch nursing company: once an organizational change is approved, the change is communicated in the company newspaper or portal, and each team decides whether or not to adopt the change.
- How to do a retrospective.
- Work has become a place to act, not to learn.
Forget everything you know…
In the third section – to me, the most interesting,- Dignan makes some suggestions on how to implement organizational changes.
I don’t want to spoil them for you, but the author begins with this phrase: “Forget everything you know about cultural transformations,” and then introduces the concept of Continuous and Participatory Change.
Then he includes an appendix where he lists two types of companies: the evolutionary organizations that he and his team have found all around the world, and others that served as sources of inspiration.
The former are organizations where many of the principles promoted by the book are lived; the latter also practice them, but to a lesser degree, or with less consistency.
I was sad to discover that none of those companies are Mexican. Then my energy was channeled in another direction:
-What are you and I going to do to change this? How are we going to transform our organizations?
“A person can make a team change; a team can make a division change; a division can make an organization change ”, closes Dignan.
A better world
Brave New Work is a book that 100% of business leaders, and anyone who wants to ignite a change in the organization where they work or collaborate, should read. Dignan dedicates his work to his son – who, ironically, is called Huxley:
“May you inherit a world where all people find fulfillment and prosperity in their work. And if not, that you help build one like that.”
I would have loved to share and discuss this book with my Dad, who had to live in a world where work was a burden. What I can do is dedicate my life to building a different world for my children.
Do you want an ally in this process of reinventing your organization or team? Call me at 8114691064 or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about how we can help you.