A great many Organisations have a focus on future ‘ways of working’: sometimes expressed as a future culture, sometimes as specific digital skills, often as an approach to innovation or change. These programmes represent the normalisation of change, and the broad acceptance of the failure of domain based scientific management (excellent for utilitarian engagement, lacking insight into invested engagement), simple constructivist learning (an approach to ‘the building blocks of excellence’ that relies on magic and emergentism), and hierarchy alone (the formal power held within a job role, as opposed to the reputation based authority of the Community). These future Ways of Working are characterised largely in two ways: they are aspirational, and they are defined frequently as ‘not what came before’. In other words, they represent a dream, and a rejection.
We sometimes consider change to start with mindset, so to reject the past is valuable, but possibly more comforting that purely effective. I suspect that our future Ways of Working will not replace existing and legacy ones, but in a rather substantial sense will build upon them. More a case of ‘both’, ‘and’.
My own work uses the notion of the Social Age to describe our evolved context of work, our background ecosystem within which we live and operate: with such broad change in this foundational context of work, it’s no surprise that the evolutionary pressures are starting to drive first awareness (“it’s starting to feel cold”) and actual change (“we’d better migrate”).
The broad acceptance represents a new Dominant Narrative (a term i am using in my wider work around Storytelling to describe the common consensual delusions of ‘how things are’: for many years, the old context of work was ‘how things are’, but now, there is an open space, open for bold Organisations and leaders to define ‘how things may be’).
There are some notes of caution to be sounded: the very context of this evolved mindset (the Social Age) impacts how this approach to change is held and expressed: in a time of portfolio careers, and the emergence of journeyman leaders, graduating from the Trans-Nationals and emigrating through the ecosystem every 3-5 years, we see a general reinforcement of tribalism (intra-organisational) and meta-tribalism (inter-organisational), as well as totemicism (i hold the thing and so the thing becomes true e.g. much Organisational approach to agility, or innovation).
Or to put it another way: we may be experiencing the true foundations of change, or we may be experiencing a dynastic, self serving, short term, and futile period of noise that precedes widespread disruption as the older Legacy Organisations fail, usurped by emergent contenders unconstrained by dynasty and existing knowledge.
Hard to say which, possibly both. I do strongly suspect that many of our Organisations are feeling pain, but are some way away from the required level of pain to actually change: but should they wait for that pain to bite, they will be terminal.
The broad strokes that paint our new landscape are very clear: technology transforming the social landscape, rebalanced power between employer/employee, and also between client/customer/consumer. We see acquisition based models of adaptation struggle due to largely cultural colonialism, and we see startup culture amplified to disrupt at scale, because it’s able to draw power precisely from the thing that it opposes (which itself reflects a broader trend of the Social Age, towards oppositional power as opposed to consensus). Brands which hold power because they oppose established regimes draw precisely upon the same social infrastructure as the tribalism that is fragmenting society at large.
The cycle of communication has also shifted from asynchronous, through synchronous, towards a weird predictive and recursive curve, where press releases precede actual statements, and culture eats itself in descending cycles of narrative, all collapsing into some strange reality TV type experience of work as entertainment, and entertainment as actual work, all of which only open to the educated and wealthy, as market inequalities and Artificial Intelligences predate the ability to earn a living from both sides. The rich get richer, the poor get less, and everyone else whirls around in a maelstrom, awaiting a lottery win or redundancy, with possibly equal excitement about either outcome.
So will an evolved set of Ways of Working save us? Yes: as long as we don’t set them up in opposition to the old ones. And as long as we can really change. The first part may seem hard, but the second is intractable.
What we need is a Dynamic Tension between different systems: freedom and control, stasis and change, rules and innovation, conformity and agency, domain and network, and so on and so forth. Both, and.
But the change is held in our ability to hold that tension, NOT to simply hold open a permissive space for it. There is a difference that is stark, and telling. Brave leaders can hold open a space to hear dissenting voices, but change leaders will listen with humility, and not respond with certainty.
If you had to boil it all down to one thing, it would probably be culture: cultures of certainty and safety struggle with ambiguity and doubt, but change will almost certainly require us to hold ambiguity, burn the fuel of risk, and celebrate uncertainty. At both an individual, and collective, level.
As usual, i feel that my own work represents an imperfect view of this, but i am ok with that, because every time i redraw the picture, the sketch gets clearer (in my mind at least: but that is a truth of the Social Age, that ‘meaning’ is found as a socially constructed artefact, built upon existing knowledge, new knowledge, and within Community, so my ‘meaning’ may be different from yours, but if we are in a space together, sharing and iterating, we may be ok in the end).
We need more Socially Dynamic Organisations, held in the Dynamic Tension between formal and social systems: able to hold uncertainty within strong systems of Social Leadership, open to broad and distributed models of storytelling, and holding a strong ability to listen to weak voices.
The Socially Dynamic Organisation will have a deeply held ability to ‘sense make’ and change, not through formal power and direct action alone, but by evolving the Dominant Narrative of itself. It will hold diverse invested engagement, not by demanding it through formal power, but rather earning it through social forces such as trust, pride, and respect. It will be deeply fair.
To state the rather obvious: an exploration of future Ways of Working is a good thing. Organisations will need to build broad digital skills, they will need to nurture and grow capability among diverse Social Learning communities, and transform their heavyweight structures to more nimble and agile ones. But they will also need to do so at a fundamental level, within a culture that reflects redistributed models of power, evolved storytelling, and building a true capability to change, all of which is much harder than simple aspiration and statement building.
Change is hard, not because of what we need to learn and gain, but because of what is eroded and given away: certainty, power, control, empire.
To build the future is a bold mission: one that requires a perspective shift, and a gradual disassembly of much that came before, but not everything. A Dynamic Tension, one that hold true to the best of the old, but which truly enables the space for a future to emerge. And it will be led by those leaders who recognise that their future foundation will be Social, not formal alone.
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