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Will crisis lead to transformation? An organisational perspective

Being in the company of real human beings has been akin to the moment when Dorothy discovers she’s not in Kansas anymore” (Burgess, 2020)

It was all so simple during the crisis. We did what we had to; we blue-skied all sorts of futures and paradigm shifts; we got through with (on the whole) flying colours and a sense of having achieved something special. But the crisis has passed and we’re going back to work. Or not. And we never stopped working. Then, somehow, Lockdown 2.0 (or the threat of it) doesn’t seem to conjure up the same brave new world as the original version. Are we or aren’t we on the cusp of a new way of working?

My colleague, Dr Shari Read, recently posted her thoughts on the question (Read, 2020), looking at it in the context of long-standing criticisms of the way we organise our work, to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of many. She warns against a “return to normal”, as attractive as that may seem to some, because “normal” isn’t any longer the best option out there and, in fact, it never was.

Shari’s recommendations go to how we as individuals can live with our discomfort and support the emergence of something new. In this series of posts, I would like to look at another aspect of the question: how the current ambiguity might impact our organisations. For some, but not all, of us, the sense is that we are at an inflection point when we could open up new, more humane, and more adaptable ways of organising our work, but that the opportunity might be slipping away from us. Is there a possibility for transformation, and how can we map out a path to achieve it?

The idea that transformation is possible, and that now is the time, rests on the way the crisis we are living through seems to have challenged some fundamental assumptions about how we organise ourselves at work. On the one hand, there is the possibility that people are becoming redundant – that we may be shifting towards “people-less companies”(Lee, 2020), enabled by robotics and artificial or augmented intelligence.

There are also suggestions that we should seek a shift towards an “enablement paradigm”(Snow, 2020), which foresees fundamental transformation in the way government relates to communities, from driving society like a giant machine to creating the conditions whereby communities produce their own good outcomes.

Although this concept is specifically focussed on the public sector, it has its analogues in the private sector, particularly in models like “sociocracy”(Boeke, 1945), “holacracy” (Robertson, 2016)  and the “Teal organization”(Laloux, 2014). In the firing line are concepts of hierarchy, replaced by greater autonomy and democracy in the workplace; notions not just of the primacy of work over private life, but of the very idea that the two should be separate; and the assumption that private purpose should be subordinate to organisational purpose, particularly if the latter is purely economic.

Arrayed against these emerging ideas (many of which have a long history), are conservative forces that aim to get back to “the way we were” as quickly as possible. These tend to see nothing fundamentally wrong with the way work was organised, and paint transformation at a more fundamental level as naïve and impractical. They see technology as enabling an evolution of work without forcing a revolution and are supported by a plethora of institutions, legislation, and infrastructure that has enabled them to generate wealth and order over many decades.

In this post, I will outline three tools that might be useful in navigating the inevitable conflict between these forces. I will dig more deeply into each in subsequent posts, and in our upcoming short course series “Designing your Transformation Roadmap”.

  • We need to think systemically and take complexity into account: If ever there were a time to bring the tools of systems thinking to bear, it is now. These recognise the non-linear, emergent nature of what we are experiencing, and encourage us to inquire into it, rather than applying pre-conceived models that filter and distort. We need to accept, and learn to deal with, the idea that we cannot control what is occurring or plan to realise specific futures.
  • We should explore and try out other models of organisation while things are still fluid: I have mentioned some existing alternative models of organisation that are already being actively explored. They may or may not be fit for the context in which we find ourselves, but we would be well-advised to monitor them and see how they appear to be coping with the new world. Perhaps we could even try out some of their approaches, to see how they work in our context.
  • We need to manage the battle and avoid committing too early: Change often arises from conflict and the ideas we are dealing with here represent very different value sets and prescriptions for action. We need to find ways to manage the conflict and adjust our responses to the emerging situation. Snow proposes that we have been through a “crisis phase”, when “we need strong leadership from the centre”. A transition phase will follow, “an opportunity to move critically and mindfully back into life, rather than jumping straight from one way of being to another”. Only after this should we move to building the new future.

Supporting these 3 tools is a core admonition: not to forget that all of them are meaningless unless we actually organise to put them into action. They cannot become reality in the head of an individual leader. Because they pertain to our organisations, applying them depends on social, collective processes, which we can initiate and support, but never fully control. As Shari points out, the way forward in this crisis is through co-creating a future. It will not emerge from individuals, no matter how well-meaning or brilliant, puzzling out a “solution” in isolation.

References:

Boeke, K. (1945, 6/6/20). Sociocracy: Democracy as It Might Be. Retrieved 21/7/20 from https://www.sociocracy.info/sociocracy-democracy-kees-boeke/

Burgess, V. (2020). With isolation over, in Canberra it’s back to normal with a bump we all would recognise. The Mandarin. https://www.themandarin.com.au/134990-with-isolation-over-in-canberra-its-back-to-normal-with-a-bump-we-all-would-recognise/

Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing Organizations: A guide to creating Organizations Inpired by hte Next Stage of Human Consciusness. Nelson Parker.

Lee, K.-F. (2020, 25/5/20). Kai-Fu Lee on how covid spurs China’s great robotic leap forward. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2020/06/25/kai-fu-lee-on-how-covid-spurs-chinas-great-robotic-leap-forward

Read, S. (2020, 3/7/20). Why am I uncomfortable with this? The World of Work Post(?)- COVID. QUTeX Blog. https://blogs.qut.edu.au/qutex/2020/07/03/why-am-i-uncomfortable-with-this-the-world-of-work-post-covid/

Robertson, B. J. (2016). Holacracy: The New Management System That Redefines Management. Penguin.

Snow, T. (2020). From the ‘service’ paradigm to the ‘enablement’ paradigm: reimagining government post-crisis. The Mandarin. https://www.themandarin.com.au/129852-from-the-service-paradigm-to-the-enablement-paradigm-reimagining-government-post-crisis/

 

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Professor Garth Britton has extensive professional international experience, particularly in Asia, including China, and has been involved in strategy development and change management, evaluating and implementing mergers and acquisitions and building leadership capability. He has a deep and practical understanding of the challenges of managing across cultures, both for individuals and organisations, of building effective teams across cultural and geographic boundaries, and developing leaders who can operate in diverse and difficult conditions. His interests include organisational culture and change; organisational design and development; coaching approaches to leadership; co-design and social innovation; and researcher-practitioner collaboration in public management.

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    Melinda Kopilow Reply

    I enjoyed your article, particularly the points on exploration and not committing too early. Thanks, Melinda

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