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Why Liberating Companies Is a Bad Idea

There are excellent reasons to be suspicious about an author who sets out to blast his own work, so you should certainly take this with a grain of salt. Still, what you will find in this post is an honest attempt to critique the thoughts spelled out in the soon to be released book “Liberated Companies.” 

Let’s start with a definition: 

A Liberated Company is a learning organization that evolves its work designs in a holistic manner towards a more egalitarian distribution of power. It aims to free people of oppression to put itself on the trajectory of technology, thereby maximizing its number of options over time. #liberatedcompany

Ready to shoot holes in it? Ready. Aim. Fire!

A) The claim to “liberate companies” is pretentious. 

Companies are coercive systems. By their very nature, they need people to submit to the needs of the company. Liberating people is unrealistic; it’s Anarchy. Companies need discipline and submission.

The Defense: If the way power is wielded in today’s companies is corrosive to a companies performance, and people’s and society’s wellbeing, liberation is indeed what is needed.

Agreed, a company needs to align people’s actions to its needs. But there are better ways to achieve that alignment than the formula “money for submission.” In a more and more knowledge-driven and dynamic economy, people’s creative problem-solving potential goes to waste, if an organization does not utilize people’s intrinsic motivation. Running companies on coercion or incentives is outdated.

Yet, liberation is a weak term. It describes the release of some constraints, but it does not represent the target itself. If the current way of running companies is to be replaced with something, what is it? It is undoubtedly not Anarchy, as Anarchy is often understood as an absence of rules. 

In a liberated company there are, actually, more rules than in traditional, more hierarchical companies. These rules are there to regulate the distribution of power between people so that everyone in an organization becomes more powerful while still enabling decisive action and focus of effort.

Companies need discipline and submission. But that discipline and the submission is to rules, not towards superior managers. The paradox of liberated companies is that, as a rule of thumb, the more liberated organizations are, the more regulations (in the form of work designs) they have. The crucial point to understand is that freedom is not the absence of regulation. Instead, freedom is the balance between autonomy and loyalty – between managing and being managed. In a traditional organization, that balance is out of whack, as most people are being managed instead of being in charge of their own work. 

We need to use work designs more deliberately to correct this imbalance. Which brings us to the second critique.

 B) Work designs are secondary: All it takes is excellent leadership – everything else will follow suit. 

Great leaders know what works and whatnot. They will come up with the right organization on their own initiative. It is their decisiveness and strategic thinking that is all-important to a company.

The Defense: Are we not beyond the strong man theory of management?

The strong man theory has all but been debunked in management and organizational research. The systems of work used in a company (and its expressions, the mindsets of coworkers, and the culture of a company) are more important than any individual, and be that the CEO. Chapter two of the book “Liberated Companies” lists all the evidence.

C) The concept of work designs is too fluffy, too open for interpretation, to be actionable.

Just look at the list of work designs on the Liberated Company Map: How can work hack’s like Kanban Boards, or the Advice Process change companies for the scale? All these work designs are not even solidly defined – they mean different things to different people.

The Defense: You got to deal with the complexity of businesses. To remain blind-sighted is not a good option.

Agreed, there are no norms for work designs, and no single work design is likely to be truly important for a company. Yet, any company is made up of work designs, and progressive companies evidently use different ones than traditional companies. Plus, they use more of them and in a more deliberate manner. The evidence about this in academic studies about progressive companies is hard to ignore. 

No work design will likely ever be precisely the same in two companies. That is not what is needed, what is ultimately crucial that work designs are used in a manner and composition to create a self-supporting configuration of work-designs.  

Reality is messy. Still, this shouldn’t keep us from describing the patterns we see in companies and develop a model to get to grips with this complexity. Work Designs, the Liberated Company Map, the 11 Principles of Liberated Companies, and others are all elements of such a model.

D) Well, work designs and liberation might be a thing – but there are more important things to focus on in businesses.

Product Innovation, Business Model Design, Talent Management, Restructuring, Systems Implementation, Cost-cutting, Growth, Business Transformation is all more important. All these initiatives have direct impacts on companies’ survival. Organizational efforts might be useful, but work more indirectly and are therefore of lesser priority.

The Defense: (i) The point is not to stop these initiatives but to supplement them with organizational measures that foster their success: More liberated work designs.

Every business initiative has an organizational dimension to it. After all, what else are business initiatives than people collaborating with another? No matter what a business is up to, it should do it by using the most ingenious work designs it can come up with. So the question is not to delay any necessary initiative but to use it as a vehicle to start weaving more liberated work designs into their very fabric.   

The Defense (ii) Liberating companies is more than a supplement to business initiatives: It is a worthy target on its own. 

Many companies struggle to get to grips with the digital age. In chapter one, “The Trajectory of Technology,” I argue that companies can be made much more technophile, i.e., able to absorb technologies and put them to good use, by adopting more adequate work designs.

Did I deflect all critiques? I do not think so, and I do not believe that I ever will. The concepts laid down in liberated companies are just a model, and there will be better ones in the future. Hell, there might even be better, more accurate, and more practical models out there today. If you know one, let me know.

That’s it for this post. “Liberated Companies- How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age.” will be in stores at the end of this month. 

Stay in touch by subscribing to this blog.

More details can be found on www.liberated.company.

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How to Liberate a Company

Suppose you have embraced the following three truths:

  1. To truly engage people, with all their capabilities you need to distribute power between people more equally 
  2. To truly utilize technology, with all the unique solutions it can provide, you need to unleash the creative problem-solving potential of people at all levels in an organization
  3. Psychological Safety, Mindfulness, System Thinking – three significant tenets of every healthy organization – can not be achieved by appeals; instead, you need to weave them into the day to day work designs of a company

Armed with these beliefs, you are ready to liberate your company or team. There are two different, complementary ways to do that. Bottom-up or top-down.

Bottom-Up Liberation: The Company Board

There are five steps to do that:

  1. List and visualize your current work designs
  2. Learn about new work designs
  3. Experiment with some promising work designs
  4. Evaluate Work Designs together
  5. Adopt those that work for your organization – discard those that don’t
  6. Repeat & Evolve

The Liberated Company Map is a great tool to list and visualize your current work designs. Besides, it is useful to learn about the plethora of possibilities, their interdependences concerning the level of power inequalities existing in your organization, and the risk you expose yourself to in the experiment.

The Liberated Company Map

While the Liberated Company Map is a map of the current all work designs of a company or team, a second tool is useful to show and track the dynamics of the experimentation process: The Company Board. The company board is a KANBAN board in which columns show the stage that a work design is in, from idea, to test, to evaluation, to adopted or discarded. The key to working with the company board is to let everyone bring up the work design she or he likes to try – everyone at their own pace. Work designs are not mandated, but they are discussed and evaluated openly before a decision is made to include them into the DNA of work designs of a company. 

The Company Board

I have worked with customers who skipped step one and jumped directly into action two without too much upfront deliberation. That worked fine, also. The crucial thing in this bottom-up process is to evaluate and decide on adopting work designs together (steps 4 and 5). While this or that work hack can enter one’s personal portfolio of work techniques, the major work designs that organizations use should be aligned. Having a “zoo” of work designs is confusing, counterproductive, and ultimately doomed to fail. There needs to be consistency in the overall work designs of an organization.

Bottom-up Liberation works like a charm because it brings order to all the Agile, New Work, Work Hack, or other management initiatives that exist in a company. It provides a holistic picture of how work is done in a company, from the simple status meeting to complex decision-making procedures, and a way to evolve it. Even better, it lets people experience that it is worthwhile to re-think the ways they work together or manage.

Most of my clients choose to do iterate and evolve their work designs in three-month cycles. That’s one 4 hour workshop every three months. Compare this tiny investment with the cost of never reflecting holistically about the way people work together at all. After twenty-five years me being in the business of organizational development, I never experienced something as effective.

Top-Down Liberation: The Themes

But all is not well. Bottom-up Liberation is excellent to get started and evolve companies or teams, but it sometimes is not intentional enough. A company is a living system, but it also a target-oriented system. The intention of a company, its purposes, should be reflected in its overall configuration of work designs.

Bottom-up experimentation with work designs will definitely make a company better but is not a surefire way to link a vision or strategy to the inner workings of a company. A certain amount of top-down design is needed to inject intentionality into the bottom-up, evolutionary process.

These kinds of top-down interventions into organizations are quite tricky. Managers, Researchers, and organizational design practitioners have been pondering about providing optimal work environments intensively since the days of Stafford Beer, the father of cybernetic design of organizations, in the 1960s. “Cybernetic design” is really just a fancy phrase for the quest to learn how to provide a good or productive work environment. Its basic premise is that you can design an environment in a way that it best supports the purpose of a company, by manipulating all the social and psychological strengths and vulnerabilities of people in a professional manner. 

It is certainly not for lack of trying, but even today, effective cybernetic is as rare as it is ethically dubious. So, how can top-down liberation work? After analyzing progressive organizations, I got a hunch. Each of these organizations seems to have an underlying theme to the way it had configured itself with work designs. While the theme might not have been apparent at the start of a company, I think it can be clearly discerned in their current configuration of work designs.

Some companies are about decisions (like Bridgewater, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds), others about entrepreneurship (like Haier, a world-class manufacturer of appliances), and others still about service (like Buurtzorg, a 14.000 healthcare company). 

The question is, what is your company (or team) about? I have dissected this high-level question into five major ideas:

  1. The idea of Technology: What’s the role that technology has in your company?
  2. The idea of Performance: What constitutes good performance for your company?
  3. The idea of Ruling: How is power wielded and distributed between people?
  4. The idea of Work: What exactly is work in your company i.e., what are the criteria that should play a role when selecting work designs?
  5. The idea of Life: What does it mean to lead a meaningful life while being a part of your company?
What are your and what are your organizations deeply held ideas?

Of course, there are many other ideas possible, but I think that those five ideas describe essential underlying themes around which companies can be built. Even better: Around which companies can configure their work designs too – like the four companies listed in the table below did.

A comparison of one traditional and three progressive companies

You can start at any level

As explained in this post, you can begin the journey of liberation anywhere in a company, at any level, at the top of companies, somewhere in middle management, or at the team level. Both bottom-up and top-down avenues to liberation are possible at any level. However, the lower you are on the hierarchical level, the more restricted your options to use work design are, and the more your themes need to be aligned to the overall organization.

That’s it for the post. “Liberated Companies- How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age.” will be in stores at the end of this month.

Stay in touch by subscribing to this blog.

More details can be found on www.liberated.company.

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A Beginners Guide to Liberated Companies

“Liberated Companies” is a new approach to organize companies or teams. Its unique perspective is to make the work designs- i.e., those structures, processes, and routines used to collaborate inside an organization- explicit and evolve them. 

Every company uses work designs: Meetings, decision-making, task allocation, information and communication, performance management, project methods, and business processes. There is no way for any company or team not to use work designs. The thing is: Most companies are not aware of what often disastrous effects their incumbent work designs have on their performance as on people. Overwhelmingly, companies plow ahead and use those work-designs their managers learned by imitation from past generations’ managers.

Progressive Organizations, many Technology Companies, the Agile, New Work, and Lean Start-up Movement demonstrate that better results can be realized for everyone by using ever more refined work designs. Work designs that enhance people’s collaboration by eliminating fear in the work-place, creating the space for more mindful, holistic, and finally more ingenious solutions.

Liberated Companies provides a model and methods to utilize these advanced work designs at scale. Just imagine what good follows from activating people all those 85% more or less disengaged people in today’s companies, of people bringing their whole to work instead of turning into a mini-sized version of themselves once they entered the office!

Six challenges for todays organizations

Every work design carries in it a message. Hierarchical decision making, for example, however it is done, carries with it a clear message of discretionary, paternalizing power. It tends to disenfranchise people, making them retreat into their inner shells. More participative decision making, more open communication, more dynamic systems of distributing power between people, reduces these negative messages and systematically encourages people to speak up. 

Another example: Giving feedback. The way that managers give managers feedback but teach people to become subservient underlings. Not because all managers suck at it, but because feedback is usually delivered from a position of great power, teaching people that manipulating the perceptions of superiors is more important than truth.

Or think of meetings. Meetings are often only thinly structured discussions on agenda points that do not reflect what people actually need and that do not strive in any way to elicit people’s genuine opinions.  

Work designs are not merely structures to get things done. They all carry messages in them that are detrimental or beneficial for an organization’s mission and growth. Every time a meeting is done, a review is done, a decision is taken, information is disseminated, a project is set up, it sends a message to people. It teaches them how to behave, what to say, and it impacts their self-esteem and personal agency. 

The “Liberated Company Map”- A map of work designs.

Systems change people much more than people change systems. The unreflected systems of work designs most companies are using today are not working as good as they could. “Liberated Companies” mean to change that.

A Liberated Company is (i) a learning organization that (ii) evolves its work designs in an (iii) holistic manner, often (iii) towards a more egalitarian distribution of power. It aims to free people of oppression to put itself on the trajectory of technology, thereby maximizing its number of options over time.

“Liberated Companies” is an approach to creatively configure and evolve the work designs of any organiz ation, company or team.

An Introduction to Liberated Companies

Let’s change the system and start evolving work designs to make companies and teams into ever better versions of themselves – for the benefit of everything that a company touches.

This book shows how: Liberated Companies – How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age.

To learn more:

Or contact us via linkedin.

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Why I don’t like Coaching. Do you?

Nor Do I think highly of personnel development, the type supplied by HR. Four reasons for this:

  1. There is too much coaching and personnel development going on in many companies. People are tired of trainers or consultants preaching 
  2. In other companies, there is too little of coaching and personnel development going on to make a significant difference to anything
  3. Even worse: There is no right amount of coaching or personnel development so long as it’s primary use is to make people fit to a rather sick system that systematically disenfranchises people
  4. There fore and worst of all, neither coaching nor personnel development are producing decisive results. They never have 

Coaching and personnel development are these days all too often just feel-good riffs of pop-culture themes: Mindfulness, Teaming and Participation, Self- Efficacy, Vulnerability, Experimentation, Failure Tolerance, Innovation, Reflection, Empathy, Agility – you name it. While each of those themes is worthwhile, they are colliding with organizational systems that let good insights wither and die – systematically. After all, systems change people way more than people can change systems. 

Of course, there is bad and good coaching or personnel development. That is not the point. The point is that any initiative that is based on transforming individuals without changing organizational systems is futile. Organizations must be changed in ways that allow people to express themselves in novel, better ways. To preach to them values and behaviors that run against the grain of the values and behaviors enticed by the organizational system itself is like sending them on an exhaustive upstream swim – often against swift currents and in cold water.

Coaching and personnel development are all too often just excuses to avoid tackling the underlying problems of companies:

  1. The systems of work we use are largely not supportive to human values
  2. As long as coercion and enticement remain the main methods to align people’s actions with companies’ targets, people will systematically choose to withdraw into their shells. They will never bring the best version of themselves to work
  3. Hierarchies are extremist ways of regulating power. If aliens would land on earth and aim to subjugate humanity to a single will, they will use the hierarchy to achieve control. Of all the many ways to distribute power between people, the hierarchy is the most centralized and extreme one

Therefore, we need new systems of human collaboration. Don’t take it from me, take it from Management professors and successful entrepreneurs like Peter Drucker, Edward Deming, Gary Hamel, Frederick Laloux, Issac Geetz, Henry Mintzberg, Zhang Ruimin, Ray Dalio, to name a few (more can be found in the Corporate Rebels Bucket List).

In my book “Liberated Companies” I argue that we need to build these systems on four criteria:

  1. Reduce power differentials: A decrease in the power differentials between people to levels that are much more in sync to human flourishing – and that hold power to account much more than common now.
  2. Invite technology in: Organizing companies in a way that invites creative problem solving into the organization and is therefore much more compatible with the needs of technological progress.
  3. Provide creative tension systematically: Increase psychological safety for people while holding people accountable for results in a more effective manner than ever before.
  4. Re-align sensemaking of economic activity with planetary needs: In our time, it will be more and more difficult for companies to turn a blind eye to the escalating ecological and human catastrophe caused to no small part by the deeds of today’s companies.

Coaching and personnel development are so often used as just another tool to make people fit to company system that is way past their prime and in urgent need of a major update itself.

Coaching and personnel development are, in their essence, conservative and reactionary in a time when all companies, people and the planet need much bolder changes.

 It’s time to make this major update.

If you like to learn more, check out the central concepts on www.liberated.company and the announcement of “Liberated Companies – How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age” – to be published by the end of November 2019.

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The Trajectory of Technology

“Liberated Companies – How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age” will be published at the end of this month. The book begins with turning a question that many company leaders ask on it’s head:

It’s not what technology can do for a company – it’s what companies can do to no longer stand in the way of technology.

I hope you like the following excerpt.


Chapter One: The Trajectory of Technology

So, you tell me that you are taking your company digital? I want to hear your idea of technology, not that you introduced this or that app… – Paraphrased from Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891)[1]

To devise an organizational design that works well in a world increasingly dominated by technology, one has to understand two things. First, we must grasp the essence of technological progress, the direction in which it is leading us—in short, we must understand the “wants” of technology. Second, as technology and humans become ever more closely intertwined, we must ask: how do humans and technology flourish together? Let’s save the first question for later and answer the second question first. 

The three ways of understanding technology

Old truth: technology is just a tool

A hammer, a coffee machine, or a smartphone app is a tool, a technology that we are using. Humans use these tools to manipulate the world around them, to get results. Natural problem-solvers that we are, we look around for the best tool to assist our efforts. If the tool is available, we simply need the skill to use it, and our lives will be easier. The basic thinking of many people in business is similar: tools help to solve problems. All we need to do is to make a tool available to workers and train them how to use it. 

But is this really true? Of course not. For as long as technology has existed, the relationship between tools and people has never been a one-way street. Humans invented and used tools, and their use shaped human culture. No technology was ever inconsequential to human mindsets, values, social systems, even the rise and fall of empires. Anthropologists even divide cultures according to their tools: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Age of the Sail, and Information Age, to name a few. The impact of tools doesn’t have to be as dramatic as gunpowder or printing; even the inconspicuous coffee machine intervenes in the way we structure our day, determines where and when we gather, takes up a prominent place in our homes, changes our biological mode of operation by drugging us slightly, and sends many of us into fits of rage when dysfunctional. 

Tools have shaped us into what we are today. There is every reason to believe that with ever more technology available, the more and more we are shaped by it. As Marshall McLuhan is often attributed to have said, “We shape our tools and thereafter tools shape us.”

Even more true: technology as a maker of decisions

People in companies have already lost control over many things they used to do. In the information age, companies have delegated many tasks to complex systems, be it in production, distribution, accounting, or sales. These systems are so complex that no single person knows what the systems are really doing. Even teams of experts often struggle to make sense of the sheer complexity of modern systems—a fact that is clearly visible in the high failure rates of modern software projects. Humans have set up these systems, but are they fully in control? Are they making the decisions? Our control is limited by design because we want the machines to take over our work, to automate much of what is happening. The algorithms humans have set up mesh with other algorithms to produce the outcomes that we want, and we tend to understand less and less of their inner workings and true complexity. Still, we choose to rely on them out of necessity. 

How much will we be in control tomorrow? Certainly less, as artificial intelligence becomes more pervasive in the workplace. The more we utilize technology, the more that technology will make decisions for us: today, it simple deterministic decisions, those that can be easily automated; tomorrow, more complex decisions, those requiring judgment. Without experts to act as translators between business and technology—be they engineers or highly specialized functional experts in logistics and accounting, for instance—modern businesses could not exist today. Yet even experts are limited in their ability to control, as it takes five things to be in control of complex systems.[2]

This is a five-point recipe for making solid decisions about complex matters. The better an organization is able to apply this recipe, the more it will prosper. The trouble is that hierarchical companies find it hard to apply this recipe effectively, for the following reasons:

Major power differentials between people are systematically detrimental to making sense of complex systems, and this defect has grave consequences. As technology becomes increasingly complex and important for the survival of companies, conventional hierarchical companies will be less and less able to benefit from technology. 

New truth: technology as a co-worker

As Kevin Kelly mentions in his book, What Technology Wants, “technology is an independent force in itself. Nobody is in control now and humanity will be less in control tomorrow. The technium is already whispering to itself.”[3]

Today, most companies are already so complex that decisions are made by a mixture of humans and machines. In companies like Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Facebook, most day-to-day business decisions are made by algorithms in real-time. Have you ever tried to talk to their “customer service people”? Overwhelmingly, the product itself, in the form of some specialized algorithm, is in charge of customer interactions—and those algorithms are doing their job extremely well. Much better than the customer service peoples of cable or telecom companies usually do.

People inside technologically advanced companies tend to work more on maintaining and experimenting with algorithms. The algorithm becomes a co-worker—one that is extremely skilled in specific functions. Humans specialize in those things that they are more adept at, such as the holistic perception of contexts and setting purposeful directions. AI researchers have concluded that humans in the digital age will be an asset to any company, as they supply a certain form of specialized intelligence.[4] Supplemented by all the multiple forms of intelligence that AI has to offer, the human-algorithm team can achieve much more than either can alone. Take chess, for example. There is no human on earth today who is able to beat modern chess programs. However, in tournaments where humans are allowed to play assisted by AI, the combination of human and machine tends to beat AI that is not supported by humans. There may, of course, come a point in the future when human interference in chess AI will no longer increase but may actually impair performance, but business is much more complex than chess—its rules are much more fluid, and its streams of information are much more ambiguous. In the context of businesses, human intelligence and machine intelligence are likely to have a productive relationship for a longer period. If humans and machines are more and more equal co-workers, the companies that benefit will be those that manage to create a work environment that fosters this cooperation. 

Today, we work and live with companies that are a reaction to the challenges of the industrial age, and the work-environment design that best suited industrial technologies was bureaucracy. Bureaucracy replaced charismatic domination with legal domination, replaced haphazard arrangements with standardized processes and a clear hierarchical way of making decisions that was focused on analytics, efficiency, consistent outputs, and reduction of waste.[5] At the time of its invention, bureaucracy was considered an antidote to bad management. Max Weber, a German sociologist credited with “inventing” bureaucracy, wrote in 1922 that “organizations are shaped by the relentless march of technological and managerial reality.”[6]

Today we face the relentless march of the algorithm. There is so much benefit inherent in algorithms that we adapt our beliefs, behaviors, values, and social norms) to them, personally, socially, and in companies. According to Max Weber, technology puts us in an “iron cage”: we are defined by technology and will be redefined every time technology changes. In the industrial revolution, the “iron cage” trapped individuals in systems of efficiency, rational analysis, top-down control, and digressional power. Now, with the rise of dematerialized digital technologies and artificial intelligence, we feel the need to adapt our ways once again in order to catch up with technology.

If technology is rapidly evolving and technologies are quickly becoming obsolete, today’s challenge for humanity is not to align itself to any single new technology, but rather to find a method to keep evolving its cooperation with technology continuously and forever. Companies need a work design that is so sensitive and adaptable that technological and social innovation at the workplace occurs naturally and permanently. It is not enough to understand individual technologies: the internet of things, social media, 3D printing, virtual reality, block-chain, self-driving cars, big data, cloud systems, or AI, to name a few emergent technologies of the last decade alone. To overcome the challenge of building a design for human, social, and technological cooperation that is able to flourish in ever more technologically driven times, we need to understand what technology wants and how a company can serve these needs best.

The Trajectory of Technology

Company leaders often ask: What does our company want from technology? How can technology help our company to be more competitive? To answer these questions, companies engage in all kinds of futuristic ideation workshops, creative sessions, company visits, and pilgrimages to Silicon Valley or coastal China. They declare success if they have identified or implemented or invested in this technology or that start-up. This is naïve.

The really important question to ask is: What does technology want from companies? This is an unusual question. Can technology “want” something? There are some thinkers, like Ray Kurzweil, who predict that a “singularity” will occur around 2045[7]—a point where machines become sentient to such an extent that they will be able to self-construct. A point where the power of the kingdom of technology outstrips the power of the kingdom of biology, to which we humans belong. That point will be a point of no return for the human race—a singularity. 

The chances are high that technology will become more independent in the future. Machines are becoming sentient in unexpected ways—it may not be that machines will trump the general versatility of biological human intelligence in the coming years, but machines are already coming up with alien forms of intelligence that make them superior for many specific applications. Recommendation engines determine what we buy, filter algorithms determine how we perceive reality, navigation apps shape the way we experience geography. The sheer numbers of proliferating specialized forms of intelligences are replacing more and more areas where our generalist human intelligence once reigned. Over time, the area where we use our human intelligence will become increasingly focused. This process has already begun. 

What I am getting at here is something else. We know from systems theory that complex systems develop emergent properties, which are behaviors that are revealed on an aggregate level but cannot be observed in any single component of the system. The system of biology, as an example, always moves towards greater specialization of species in a process of evolution determined by its inherent characteristics. The biochemical algorithms surrounding DNA shape the trajectory of biology, pointing toward what biology wants.

The system of technology can be visualized in the same way. Instead of biochemical realities, technology is based on the physical and mathematical realities that the world is made of. The laws of physics and mathematics are the algorithms that technology uses to progress. At first, that may sound outlandish. After all, if my computer bothers me, I can cut its power supply. But I can’t unplug the whole system of technology, everything that surrounds us and that is manmade. No one can unplug the internet. And the more the internet of things becomes a reality, the less it will be possible to disconnect physical reality from virtual reality. 

More shocking and significant is that we do not want to unplug technology because we are already a part of it. The American author Kevin Kelly, who is known as the philosopher of Silicon Valley, has devoted most of his adult life to thinking and writing about technology. Kelly uses his own definition of technology, the Technium, which he defines as “the accumulation of stuff, lore, practices, traditions, and of choices that allow an individual human to generate and participate in a greater number of ideas.”[8]

The Technium is made up of technology and humans. Our current culture still holds onto a human-centric view of the universe—a view that puts the rational human mind in control of technology. But in academia it is generally accepted today that no human, no institution, absolutely no one is in control of technology.[9] Technology is an independent force that worms its way forward as a result of technical, social, political, psychological and commercial forces. It is a system that has inert wants, just as biological evolution has. The wants of technology have been making themselves felt for decades and can only become more prominent over time, especially after artificial intelligence becomes sentient.

Today, many companies are lumbering slowly along the technological highway, only to be smashed by Amazon, smashed by Airbnb, smashed by Netflix, smashed by online pure-plays with their data and algorithms. It can be argued that these major successful companies today do not stand in the way of technology but are simply traveling on the same trajectory as technology. What if we could find a way of organizing a company where the use of technology proliferates naturally? Where the technological, social, and commercial spheres establish self-reinforcing feedback loops and evolve together? That company would be on the same trajectory as technology—and it would be a very powerful design for a company indeed.

To sketch a work design of the future, more is needed than just looking at today’s technologies; sn understanding of the inner workings of technology as a whole is required. So, what does technology want? Kevin Kelly has discerned a number of directions that technology works towards that together make up what he terms the “trajectory of technology” (Table 1). Let’s go through this list and consider its implications for the work design of a company.[10]

Technology wants efficiency

Technology loves efficiency. The more efficient a technology gets, the more it begets other technologies. Take electric cars, for example, which only became a mass-market option with more efficient batteries. Or virtual reality, which was invented in 1989 but became viable only when high-resolution smartphone screens became cheaply available in the 2010s.

Humans are in love with efficiency, too. Efficiency has been our faithful companion since the industrial revolution, and it won’t leave us now that we have passed into the digital age. Efficiency is clarity; it is rational and comforting in a world of uncertainty. Efficiency gives us a problem to solve. Dealing with the brother of efficiency—effectiveness—is much more tedious. Effectiveness, which is about choosing what to do rather than how to do it, comes with too many options and is less rationally computable for us than efficiency. It is not only humans’ laziness that lets us seek efficiency; it is technology itself that seeks efficiency. The quest for ever more efficient solutions is one we share with technology. Companies will continue to seek efficiency today and tomorrow. The change is that there will be much more potential to find efficiencies as technology has more and more to offer over time. Therefore, the way work is done in companies—their “work design,” a term we will use extensively throughout this book—needs to adapt more and more often. Organizing must become more of a process of evolution and less of an incremental exercise.

Technology wants opportunity

Over time, technologies offer more and more opportunities to do things differently. The Amazon bookstore begot the Amazon marketplace, which begot Amazon Prime, Kindle Unlimited, and Amazon Dash, which begot Amazon Web Services, and so on. The peer-to-peer file-sharing technology underpinning Napster begot the streaming mediums of Youtube, Netflix, and Spotify, which begot advanced artificial intelligence used for recommendations, which begot social collaboration on videos and music with friends. Youtube, Netflix, and Spotify in turn became possible because of cloud technologies such as those offered by Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and similar cloud services that offered server capacity on demand.

As options for technologies to progress increases, so too does the number of options companies have for solving problems. This is increasingly true not only for the design of products but also for the way companies do their internal work. In the 1990s, companies grew a nervous system for the processing of information, called enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, in the form of packages like SAP or Oracle. These core systems contributed a great deal to a company’s ability to go global and outsource work. Today, web technology has joined ERP systems as the backbone of internal and external collaboration, enabling real-time business and new forms of combining humans and algorithms into new creative solutions.

As we discussed earlier, humans are problem-solvers. Companies are always desperate for better solutions, and technology provides them. An organizational design that is to stand the test of the technological tsunami must ensure that people are aware of the solutions technology has to offer. The need for more opportunity is the same for technology, for companies, and for people: they all want more opportunities. It is up to the work design of a company to transform opportunity into benefits. If people feel encouraged to be on the lookout for new opportunities, can conduct experiments without fear of failure, and have the autonomy to decide on their own to include this or that technology in their daily work, the needs of technology and companies will be aligned.

Technology wants diversity and specialization

One technology begets another, but no technology will ever go away. They stick with us as part of the Technium, forever offering an option of how to do things. Even once-obsolete technologies may be rediscovered and suddenly become attractive again if they are combined with new technologies. The Technium never forgets.

More than that, technologies come in multiple variants. For example, they change form according to their area of application. Google’s search algorithms are both similar and different for searching pictures, videos, geographies, or medical scans.[11] They are similar to and different from filter algorithms used by Facebook, Tinder, or Amazon. Every technology is adapted to the specifics of a situation and becomes ever more specialized, thereby increasing diversity.

The more diverse and specialized the technologies on offer are, the more decentralized and varied a company must become to make good use of the richness of the technological environment—more varied than can be supported by company hierarchies, which are designed to suppress variance, as we shall see in Chapter 2: The Corrosive Impact of Power Differentials.

Technology wants complexity

Technology is one of the main reasons why doing business is becoming more and more complex. Companies must organize themselves in such a way as to handle this complexity, but ever-increasing complexity cannot be controlled; it can only be worked with. Failures will be unavoidable, but research has shown that competent people who are in close proximity with technology, and who are authorized to make decisions, can prevent failures from becoming disasters.[12] Two proven methods to increase a company’s ability to handle complexity are to let the people who are closest to the problem make the decisions, and to ensure that they are competent. Give them competence and freedom, then trust them to act.

Technology wants emergence and sentience

Handling the increasing complexity caused by technology is difficult—so we use technology to stay on top of it. Intelligent agents that keep technologies in check are already at work in every smartphone, every computer center, in cloud systems, in medical systems, or in routing algorithms at call centers. Companies specialized in this field are mostly hidden from public view but are worth billions of dollars. Take ServiceNow, a company that came from nothing in 2014 and is now valued at US$50 billion in 2019. Their business model is to provide companies with the capability to stay on top of their sprawling IT operations, no matter whether the workers are humans or machines. 

Technology will increasingly be running itself in the coming years. Indeed, it has already taken on a life of its own, and determining where sentience starts is an open-ended debate. Some think it starts with intelligent, self-organizing behavior that apparently works but that we are unable to fully understand. We will be using more and more algorithms and intelligent assistants over time. Kelly and others predict that the benefits we are able to give to our organizations will crucially depend upon our ability to collaborate with machines. A work design for the digital age must provide an environment where people can get acquainted with their new technological companions and quickly adapt to the fast pace of change.

Technology wants ubiquity and freedom

Technologies, even dangerous ones, spread no matter what we do. There is no way to control the very real problem of nuclear proliferation, for instance, but there are less dramatic examples. The so-called “washing nuts”—the fruits of the Sapindus saponaria—have been used by local communities in India for thousands of years, but they recently became popular in Western households seeking more sustainable ways of cleaning fabric. Demand for them caused prices to rise so much that Indian communities were forced to switch to “modern” washing powder. Any technology, old or new, spreads. 

Companies align themselves with technologies’ desire for ubiquity by making it easy for technologies to both enter and flow forth from the company: they pull in technology by making it easy for people or units to observe and adapt whatever technology other people, units, or companies are using, and they also let technologies travel from the inside to the outside. Why should a company share its technologies with the outside? The more technologies change, the less a single technology represents a competitive advantage for any prolonged period. Technologies become stale if they are cut off from contact with the outside world; if outside observers cannot scrutinize a technology, if insiders cannot freely discuss its merits and opportunities, its full potential benefits will fail to develop. There will still be a case for secrecy in areas where technological progress is not fast—such as preserving the recipe for a vintage drink like Coca Cola—but in most other cases, openness and the freedom for technology to spread in all directions is a better choice. More and more options become available to an organization that is open to the spread of technology. Freedom begets options begets progress. 

It takes an open organization to let technology proliferate. The primary mechanism for this is to make it easy for people at all levels to take a break from their close colleagues and explore other technologies “out there,” then come back and synthesize their findings at home.[13]

Technology wants mutualism and structure 

Technologies build (and rely) upon each other. A car’s navigation, parking, and voice control systems rely on its electrical systems, which in turn rely on the car’s mechanical systems. Technologies are mutually dependent, and the more advanced the technology, the more dependent it is. 

However, there are two traits that a successful technology—one that spreads—must show. First, it must be reliable. Those technologies prone to breakage are unlikely to spawn new technologies or combine with other technologies to form more complex solutions. Second, its structure must be easy for those interacting with it to understand. Today’s phone apps, for example, are only so ubiquitous because they are built on very stable operating systems (ioS, Android) and developers can access the published library of Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) released by Apple or Google. Another, more low-tech example is the way that a light bulb interacts with the electrical grid. It can only do its job because it can rely on a stable grid with well-described properties and because its socket conforms to mechanical norms.

In the digital age, work designs need to be geared towards creating combinations of human and technological activity. Therefore, they must cater to experimentation, playfulness, and local variation while still providing a high level of reliability.

Technology wants evolvability and beauty

The result of all of the above is that technology will necessarily evolve. Becoming both ever more efficient and increasingly complex, it will create more opportunities, greater diversity, and more specialized uses. It will show more forms of sentient behavior, will increase freedom, and will rely on and be relied upon by other stable, structured technologies.

Kelly argues that technological evolution and biological evolution are very similar. The specialization of species, the striving of all life forms to become ubiquitous, and the ever-increasing complexity of biological systems is not unlike the process of technological evolution that we have been exploring. The biggest difference between these two types of evolution is that biological evolution is much, much slower. Biological evolution is bound by the realm of biochemistry and scarce resources. Technological evolution is not bound by any material constraints; it is only limited by the laws of physics and mathematics. Technological evolution happens in a realm of abundance; biological evolution happens in a realm of scarcity.

The implications are quite shocking. There is no way that technological evolution will not outpace biological evolution. That means that humans will need to cut loose from their biological origins and humanity will need to come to grips with artificial forms of intelligence that will become ever-more superior. Humans and technology are players on the same team, however. It’s likely that they will become closer and closer entwined.[14] In humanity’s fight to gain dominance over nature and biology, technology has always been our greatest ally. 

Of course, with the limits of our planet so clearly visible, the time has come for us to stop fighting with biology. After all, we are biological creatures, and continuing to fight against biology is likely to get us all killed. It is time to change our ways through a better understanding of holistic ecosystems.[15] Technology can be our ally if we stop using it to overpower biological systems.

Positioning companies on the trajectory of technology

How can a company align itself with a trajectory of technology that calls for continual evolution? The answer is simple: it needs to evolve, too. However, evolution is something totally different than the typical corporate transformation programs of today. A traditional change program follows a number of steps: (1) decide on a vision for the company; (2) assess the status quo; (3) determine the delta between vision and status quo; (4) create an implementation plan; and (5) execute this plan, which usually requires people to be trained, processes and systems to be established, and accountabilities restructured. Five years on, however, the company usually ends up with an outdated vision, implementation that has become bogged down, and a general sense of disillusionment. The classic change program, though rational and controllable, is a relic of the industrial age. It has four fundamental flaws that render it obsolete in the digital age:

1 Reliance on prediction. It assumes that the future can be predicted.

2 Assumption of no important unknowns. It assumes that this vision can be broken down through a rational process into an implementation plan.

3 Assumption of rational agents. It assumes that people at the top have the objective ability to sense what’s needed for both vision and implementation.

4 Assumption of relative stability. It assumes a period of stability after the change has been made so that all implementation costs can be recouped.

An evolutionary work design is quite different. It rests on the following four assumptions: [16]

Reliance on mental models: Multiple predictions are great for building mental models that prepare for the possibilities that the future holds. 

Assumption of fundamental learnings. There are very important things to learn that we are not even aware of. A high-level yet meaningful organizational mission is enough to give direction to the evolution of a company. Visions become more like forecasts, repeated along the way, and less like directions.

Assumption of collective intelligence. Individual actors are even better if they support themselves. A company’s work design must be open and transparent so everyone can sense technological, market, or customer needs.

Assumption of fluidity. The future consists both of stability and change of any magnitude. We don’t know how long stability will last, nor do we know how fundamental a change will be. But we do know that we need to be prepared. 

Biological evolution brings to life highly complex things that humans often call beautiful: zebras and giraffes on the savannah, a flock of geese in flight, meadows filled with flowers. In the same sense, technological evolution brings about beautiful things through its evolutionary drive: virtual worlds, beautiful tableware, sleek cars. The chances are that organizational evolution will bring about companies that we experience as beautiful, too. Places where people are free to invent, to heed their inner calling, to look after others, to contribute to the world with less fear of oppression.

As a very earth-bound North German, I need to add a caveat here. Evolution brings about many highly specialized things that we do not classify as beautiful: cockroaches, bed bugs, intestinal worms. There will also be ugly, exploitative organizations. However, organizational evolution will make sure that the safari will be much more colorful than ever before. 

*** That concludes this excerpt of “Liberated Companies”. If you enjoyed it, consider signing up to this blog to stay connected.


[1] (Nietzsche, 1974)

[2] Adapted from (Silver, 2012). Silver describes what a good forecast is built upon. I think that this list is applicable to the management of any complex system.

[3] (Kelly, 2011)

[4] (Kelly, 2011)

[5] (Birkinshaw, 2012)

[6] (Weber, 2019)

[7] (Kurzweil, 2006)

[8] (Kelly, 2011)

[9] (Harari, 2016)

[10] (Kelly, 2011)

[11] To get an impression, skim through the AI Services offered by Amazon Web Services today. All these world-class algorithms are available today, for everyone. https://aws.amazon.com/machine-learning/)

[12] (Spears, 2010).

[13] (Pentland, 2014)

[14] Historian Yuval Harari believes the emergence of “super humans” is likely—that is, humans augmented with technology in ways that make them significantly less human. (Harari, 2016)

[15] (Raworth, 2017)

[16] The list is inspired by (Sanford, 2017).

1 comment on “Book Announcement: Liberated Companies”

Book Announcement: Liberated Companies

Are you tired of hearing about Agile, New Work, Lean, and Design Thinking?

Did you already experience how the marvelous values inherent to those approaches have been hijacked and corrupted into just another wave of corporate gimmickry?

Do you wonder how your company or team will ever be able to solve its problems more creatively and spirited?

Companies need an update. The way we run most companies today is detrimental on so many levels. It’s neither well-performing nor allowing technology and humans to flourish. Yet there are progressive organizations that show that through distributing power more evenly, we can make the workplace much better than ever before. This book shows how.

The Need

How to enable people to prosper alongside technology is all-important for any modern organization. The more technology inundates our lives, the more humans must be at the center of organizational design. They are the only ones that can make sense of its vast and ever-increasing possibilities. In current companies, people are rarely able to flourish. There is no sidestepping the issue that arbitrary power undermines people’s initiative, performance, and personal development. In the digital age, we need to find new mechanisms for sharing power to make everyone in an organization more powerful – without distributing power so much that companies become indecisive and unfocused.

This book offers a practical method for running companies ‒ using progressive work designs ‒ that is much better attuned to the digital age as well as to human needs. #liberatedcompanies

The Content

Liberated Companies is a business book for people at all levels who are looking for better ways of working yet find it hard to determine what precisely these better ways are. Much has been said and written about digitalization, the agile company, New Work, and the need for more self-management, yet almost everyone struggles to make sense of it all. So many good ideas, so much corporate gimmickry. Most people are uncertain about what’s really important and what really works.

Liberated Companies is a book about management in the age of digitalization. It provides orientation to master the ever-increasing complexity of the business world by showing that human collaboration is more actively malleable than we are accustomed to think or believe. By using and evolving work design configurations, ways of collaborating with one another, we can work ourselves and our organizations into new behaviors and mindsets. The book can be a travel companion on that journey. It provides a map and a compass for those seeking to navigate their company or their team to better human and economic outcomes for everyone in business and society.

The USP

This book helps readers to:

  • Design their organizations, companies, and teams much more actively than ever before.
  • Know what makes really matters for them and their organizations and what can be safely ignored.
  • Map and navigate their organizations’ journey through the digital age.
  • Lead their organizations with purpose, efficiency, and humanity
  • Appreciate, realize, and support everyone’s human potential much better. 
  • Manage in a way much more attuned to the needs of technology and of people. 

Because the book:

  • Makes the fallacies of hierarchical, empowered and self-managed models of working clear
  • Maps the complex territory of organizations in a unique representation of management practice, the “Liberated Company Map.”
  • Distinguishes, based on the situation of a company, those work designs that are most applicable for it out of a library of about 200 work designs
  • Provides a compass to the organizational journey, the “11 Principles of Liberated Companies.”
  • Delivers great examples by describing the configurations of work designs of one traditional and three leading progressive companies. 

The Author

Frank Thun has helped organizations around the globe to digitalize their operations as a Project manager, CIO, COO, and Coach. He studied Economics at the Universities of Kiel, Germany, and Glasgow, Scotland, and holds a Masters Degree in Economics. He worked for start-ups and companies like Daimler, Volkswagen, Capgemini Ernst & Young, General Electrics, Nokia Networks, Bayer, Philips, Schneider Electric and Invensys.  

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I spend my lifetime looking for better ways to run teams and organizations. This is my attempt for a comprehensive answer. I hope you will find it useful.

Liberated Companies- How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age“, 380 pages, will be available in hardcover and e-book worldwide in the second half of November.

Sign-up to www.liberated.company to stay in touch AND spread the word – every tweet and post helps.

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Great Books on Designing Work in the Digital Age

During 2018 I become unsure if “management” is still a thing. I was suspicious of the word “leadership” before – after all, there are far more people wanting to lead than to those who want to follow.

The aspect of management which become suspect to me is the notion that people must be managed. Things surely need to be organized in order to reach anything meaningful but do people need to be managed? Isn’t it enough to build an environment where people can prosper and organize themselves as deem best to reach the target of the company?  Is the provision of an organizational environment still management or should it better be called work design?

Now, on the 1st of January 2019, I tend towards ditching the term “management” and talk about “work-design” more. Words matter and people often have either a negative connotation of management or an attitude towards management that leads to overbearing behavior.

In the digital age is might often be wiser to think of yourself as a work-designer than a manager.

That way you might keep yourself from interfering too much.

New Years Day is a great time to reflect on the past year. As most of my time in 2018 has been devoted to reading and writing about “organizing companies in the digital age”, I decided to update my list of favorite books on this big topic.  The ones that most influenced my thinking can be found on top of the list

GreatBooks.png

Legend:

  • Grey Background: Essential Reads
  • Yellow Highlight: New Entries in 2018
  • Green Highlight: Books which I came to value more in 2018 – they took time to take root in my thoughts
  • Red Highlights: Books which I came to value less in 2018 – these are still very good books, though

Books that Describe the Workings of the Individual Mind

This Category is about Mindfulness,  Vulnerability, Bias,  Mental Focus and all those things that make up the intrinsic motivation of people. What has proved to be quite consequential in my daily work is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. I think that the ability to deeply focus is not only a personal working technique – it is a quintessential design criterion of an organization seeking to maximize improve knowledge work.

Books about Teams

Oh my, how many years did I delay reading the works of Robert J. Hackman. His work has been cited so often and everywhere, that I thought I already knew everything Mr. Hackman had to teach. How mistaken have I been! “Leading Teams” by Robert J. Hackman is a must read. As is Amy Edmondson’s “Teaming”, which is delivering important underpinnings to ones understanding of teams from the realm of psychology.

“SCRUM” by Jeff Sutherland is still a great book, but I became a lot more skeptical about the rigidity of the method and the dogmatic way SCRUM it is used. SCRUM is so often executed with no understanding to its inner working, that it lends itself pretty well to being corrupted with the conventional, corrosive workings of excessive power differentials between people. Often SCRUM becomes a method of exploitative productivity rather than customer value and excellence.

Books about Organization

Henry Mintzberg fortified his position on the top spot in my mind in this category with his extremely wise book “Simply Managing”. I don’t think that anyone will come close to that. But be warned: Simply Managing does not, despite the title, supply any recipe for management. Rather, you will end up not knowing what to do now in face of all the complexity.

The same feeling will haunt you after you have finished Philp Rosenzweig’s “The Halo Effect”: Crushing complexity and no easy solutions.  Do not despair – hope is just two columns to the right: Liberated Companies.

Books about Digitalization

So many things are written about Digitalization, yet so little new is added. Over the last year, I came to value the challenges posed by the intersection of technological challenges (Companies IT-infrastructure and IT-Architectures) and the way that people are organized more and more: The collaboration of Man and Machine. I came to value these seemingly so techie topics of “DevOps” and “Continous Delivery” even more. Although the understanding of those topics requires quite a bit of insight on the work of software engineers, I believe more and more that there is no alternative for managers than to understand tech.

Digitalization without understanding Technology from a genuine Technology perspective is crucial –  a User/ Strategist/Entrepreneur perspective alone is not enough.

Managers, Organizers, Work designer – however, you might call them to need to immerse themselves in the realm of technology or be left out.

Sorry about that, you techno-agnostic writers on digitalization or you organizational psychologists. It far from “nerdy” to know what “DevOps” is. I am convinced that understanding concepts like DevOps is a necessity is a technology to lead companies in a technology-saturated world.

Books about Liberated Companies

What Laloux manages to deliver on examples and theories, Peter Block underpins with spiritual insight in “Stewardship“. The discovery of the word “spiritual” was central for me in 2018, as all more advanced organizations need people to hold open space where performance can prosper, where people can self-direct themselves more.  And the conviction that “holding open a space for self-management” is worthwhile doesn’t come out of the blue. It is, strangely enough, a spiritual process.

Now, “spiritual” is not a word often used in management literature. Yet a state of mind naturally precedes any action. A wonderful example which is focused on ACTION but is essentially a spiritual journey is delivered by David Marquet’s “Turn the Ship Around“. A book about a nuclear attack submarine and its crew – a setting like in a Tom Clancy thriller.

If you want something futuristic to read, read Yangfeng Cao’s “The Haier Model”: Haier’s organizational model is probably the most sophisticated company on earth.

Books About Work Designs

The skeleton of today’s companies is the hierarchy and the process. With self-management on the rise, the hierarchy will be replaced with work-designs that ensure checks and balances that allow people to govern themselves. Some of these work designs can be gleaned from the books on Liberated Companies or Teams. Deeper insights into microstructures that make up work can be found in books like “Liberating Structures” from Keith McCandless et al. It is full of practical recipes, too.

Books about Strategy

A company is a purposeful system and cannot be seen disconnected from its purpose. That is why understanding strategy is important for anyone in charge of organizing. A strategy is nothing else than the way for a company to work towards its purpose. Therefore, read Henry Mintzberg’s “Strategy Safari” if you want to manage purposefully – and you want to show those consultants of McKinsey’s and Boston Consulting Group how outdated their analytical way of approaching strategy really is.

Books about Data Science

In a VUCA World, it is indispensable to get a grip on understanding and using uncertainty to the advantage of a company. Running experiments will never suffice is not supported by the capability to understand such thing as volatility, variance, covariance and the difference between causation and correlation.

Nissam Taleb’s “The Black Swan” focusses one’s views on the things that really matter, i.e. when events occur that may be very unlikely but have so much impact, that all other event’s do to really matter.

On the other hand, the small events matter, too, especially in those shorter time frames that most companies use to focus on.  Nate Silver’s “The Signal and The Noise” is still my favorite classic for this field. It has very practical implications for the set-up of teams, technology, and processes.

Books about the Digital Age

I read Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” for a second time in 2018 because I was looking for an answer to the question “What does Technology want from Companies?”. A strange question at first glance, but I suspect that the impact that technology, the cooperation of Men and Machine, has on human collaboration is still undervalued.

In the Digital Age companies must not only solve the problem of human engagement – they must solve the problem of human-machine engagement, too

A special mention goes to “White Working Class” from Joan Williams for explaining the downsides of globalization and digitalization:  The divide of society into many have-nots and the few prosperous.  This economic and cultural divide cannot be solved by Silicon Valley’s Elitism.

Biographies – Long, Deep Reads

Last not least I have added my three favorite biographies that shaped by view on many of the topics of work design:

  • Seize the Fire” by Adam Nicholson – how Lord Nelson, 1st Sealord of the British Admiralty made the Navy. Fundamentally, a book about intrinsic motivation.
  • “The One Best Way” by Robert Kanigel – a biography of the “worlds first business consultant” Frederick Taylor. He came up with “Scientific Management”, which still dominates companies today. A voluminous book about a thinking process which went on around 1900 and  is to thank and to blame for today’s, often inhuman and underperforming state of companies
  • “The Undoing Project” by star-author Michael Lewis – a biography of the collaboration between Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, two of the most important organizational psychologists.  The essence, as I see it,  is: We can’t trust our brain and judgment alone. Human judgement benefits from checks and balances that companies may weave into their work designs.

That’s my year 2018 in books. Let me know what you read and have been fascinated by! I sincerely like to hear from you.

Have a Liberating 2019!

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Next post will be continuing the long series on “Effective Teams” – to be found in your mailbox at the end of January.

0 comments on “Silicon Valley Clowns and their Fanboys”

Silicon Valley Clowns and their Fanboys

After absorbing the N’th podcast/video/article of some random guy who used to work in Silicon Valley bragging about disruption and boldness, I couldn’t stand the platitudes anymore. I couldn’t help but be making a checklist on how to recognize a Silicon Valley Clown:

scc.png

I guess you can add to this list.

What really annoys me about this kind of talking are three points:

A. Just because you have worked in the Valley doesn’t prove anything

Remember: Most Start-ups fail and there is not always learning involved. Not seldom, it is just silly. In our days there is a lot of money around that wants to be spent in hope for the next unicorn.

And if you worked for some poster company (Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla, etc.): Congrats, you have been a corporate robot, like so many of us. Does this make you an expert on innovation? I do not think so.

B. Snake oil traders selling to the Hinterland

It’s all Sales. Skim through the table above and look for a pattern: Name dropping, impressive insider wording, the time spent traveling and networking. There is just one job where you can do these things consistently: Sales.

There is nothing wrong with being a Salesperson. The danger is that that kind of persons usually become the trusted advisor to CEO’s, in roles like Chief Digital Officer, Chief Innovation Manager, etc. So you got a Sales guy trying to orchestrate all the aspects of a thing as complex as digitalization AND a resource-rich but fundamentally disoriented CEO listening to him.

Good luck with that!

C. Focussing on the Obvious while remaining Oblivious to Deep Challenges

Everyone knows that digitalization will fundamentally transform businesses. It is just that the term “fundamentally transform” is often interpreted in a very narrow sense -like this:

  • Building up new streams of revenue by investing in start-ups
  • Old Business Models die, new ones that involve more Technology and Data come up
  • All this happens real fast in an uncertain environment, so I better get my organization agile

That’s a consensus view, right? The trouble is, the transformation is much deeper than this.

  • With an ever-accelerating rate of change, the race to build up new start-ups faster than the old business dies is doomed from the start: If maturing start-ups experience the same organizational sclerosis than traditional companies, these “throwaway companies” cost too much investment for a shorter and shorter pay-back period
  • Digital Technology and high rate of changes make every front-line worker to a Knowledge Worker. Hand on Heart: The overwhelming number of companies and managers never did a good job managing knowledge workers
  • All this agile and lean entrepreneurial stuff will not work, without trust, transparency and finally the acceptance of vulnerability of humans. Without that – my dear Cowboy CDO/CEO-  people will never open up. Without open communication, groups of people can never be innovative, and the pace of learning will be dismal

Face the deep challenges… or else

So the deep challenges are

  1. Building companies that last and avoid instititional sclerosis
  2. Learning to see everyone as Knowledge Worker
  3. Step away from the Cowboy Style of Leadership and becoming a Servant Leader

That’s why I believe organizations need to move towards more Self-Management. To rely on the fickle whims of an autocrat, which any manager with the hire and firepower is, is fundamentally not good enough to let people open up and be innovative.

So the hierarchy has got to retreat. It does not need to disappear, it just needs to fade more into the background.  There needs to be more checks and balances on hierarchical power.

Is that the silver bullet, the hierarchy needs to take a back seat? As always, it’s just one element.

But it might just be the one that requires the most time and is the hardest to pull off, as it requires such a broad mind shift in managers and people. A mind shift that goes against the command and control we all learned in school and experience in the business.

On the other hand: Ugh, that’s tough. Maybe you should just continue wasting your time with your Silicon Valley Clown, you (CEO) fanboy.

___

Sources: 

Here are some legacy posts which you might find helpful:

What kind of Organization do modern Companies aspire to be? – how companies like Amazon or Netflix do it

The Startup Way by Eric Ries – Book review – how not to do it

The World’s Leading Hedgefund is Relying on Key Principles of Self-Managed Organizations – how an arch-capitalist is embracing vulnerability

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0 comments on “33 Books on Digital Transformation”

33 Books on Digital Transformation

There are many sources about Digital Transformation of Businesses. But which one’s fit your needs? Those aimed at how to transform Operations or those how to create new Products? Those about Business or those aimed at an IT audience? Here is some advice where insights can be found for your information needs.

Quadrant 1: Transformation of Operations

Most Literature on Digitalization is really about how to come up with great, innovative products. There is fewer – and much less popular literature – on the way that Operations can be transformed by digital Technologies. Understandably, the prospect of inventing your way to the next big thing attracts many more readers that changing something existing.

Out of all sources i have read so far i would recommend to read Team of Teams by Stanley Mac Chrystal et al. It is not only an entertaining read, but it shows so much of the value of less hierarchical, network based organizational models, driven by a common mission and a shared understanding of data.

0 comments on “Bring it on! The 2016+ Challenge”

Bring it on! The 2016+ Challenge

2016 was a very special year in so many aspects. Trump, Brexit, Terror, Wars & Refugee’s, the resurgence of authoritarian leaders, Zero Interest Economics, the beginning of the post-factual age etc. All these effects and causes contribute to high levels of uncertainty. Despite most economic and social indicators, pointing upwards with record low or reduced unemployment in many countries, the feeling of uncertainty prevails – in an almost post-factual manner. The media seems to be the message, finally.