To be an idealist is a great asset to the world as it takes a non-conformist to change the world. But the graveyard is full of – mostly young – idealists whose ideas fell victim to the harsh realities of the status quo they were (naively) trying to change.
The whole Agile Movement is an idealistic movement. A movement of smart people who want to change the way people collaborate into a more liberated, engaging and fundamentally more humane way. In this effort, the Agile Movement has much better chances to succeed than many other idealistic endeavors, as it appeals to the profit motive that is so predominant in today’s business world. The obvious success of Silicon Valley and those liberated ways of working provide companies with a justification to try those high minded agile management practices. In other words: The profit motive is a strong reason to embrace Agile.
But still, the odds are steep, and the fight will be one for generations. Let me explain why.
Being a Great Company is Optional
Peter Drucker listed the three things that a company really needs to be great.
A company can only exist if it serves a customer need by supplying a product. This is mandatory. In contrast to this, having a great company culture is helpful but not required to build products, good economic results or to simply survive as a company in the long run:
- A company may survive quite comfortably for a long time if the competition is as badly organized as it is
- A great culture improves the odds of building a great product, but you might end up with a great product just by chance even with a mediocre culture
- The law of high numbers is at work here – provided that many try, some will get lucky
According to economic theory, competition will come in the long run and uproot the underperforming companies, simply because there is a profit to be made. This might be what is happening today in the digital revolution, but this process takes time.
The Status Quo is far from abdicating
Agile or Liberated companies (as I prefer to call them) have great working cultures. They are, therefore, systematically more likely to achieve great results than companies running a command and control model. But is that enough to win against the status quo en masse? Here are some reasons why the command and control paradigm might still win:
- The number of start-ups has been decreasing for years
- More and more Start-ups are sold directly to corporate investors. Mostly, they become a part of the established way of doing business thereafter
- Every generation, even the youngest, is still primed for command and control. The Education system is still built on conformity to hierarchical norms
- The economy gets more and more geared towards monopolies or oligopolies. It is the very nature of the platform and digital economy that the winner takes all benefits (e.g. Amazon, Google, Facebook). By their very nature, the dominant strategy for monopolies and oligopolies is to exploit their customer, as this is a much safer way to compete than risky innovation
- Income inequality and the rise of the new right in global politics (e.g. Trump, Brexit) and of autocratic leaders (Erdogan, Orban, Al-Sissi, Putin) will not leave economic structures of the companies unaffected. With the suppression of free speech in the political realm, facts becoming optional alternative facts and filter bubbles companies will not be able to hold a space for truthful and open speech, two core pillars of liberated companies in jeopardy
- The prevailing mindset today is that of shareholder value, which is centered on making profits no matter what while still being legally compliant. With Liberation, managers got to pick up a trick: In order to achieve profits, it is better to approach the profit target indirectly, obliquely: Do not go directly for the Sale or the cost cutting but manage by values. Sales and efficiency will follow.
In total: Not a pretty picture- the Imperial forces are strong, young padawan.
What can be Done?
The most often heard criticism of Liberated Companies is that it takes an enlightened benevolent dictator for it to succeed. A leader who holds the space for the values of the Agile Manifesto, for the 10 Habits of Liberated Companies and who allows people to implement Agile management practices.
That kind of leader is hard to find. Plus, an organization running on liberal principles is inherently unstable, once its top leader changes (or changed her mind). This instability is even greater in Liberated Companies than in Command & Control Companies. Things like trust, open speech and individual autonomy and freedom to act are very fragile things, time-consuming to grow and very easily destroyed. In contrast to this, command and control organizations are much more stable: Everyone knows the rules, the direction might change with a new leader but the way work is done is almost never changing to a significant extent. People might need to learn a new trick to please their superior, yes. But not much more.
As long as there are private property rights, people remain entitled to run their companies (or delegate running their companies) the way they or the stock market wants. This won’t change over a foreseeable period.
Hold the space, young Padawan
Let me explain why I still think that liberation is worthwhile:
- Every period of Liberation is likely to produce superior economic results
- Everyone involved in a Liberated Organization picks up skills and mindsets, that will make it easier to work on a higher level for her at any point in time in the future
- With every agile practice the DNA, the organizational memory of the Organization, evolves. A part of this DNA might become inactive for a time, but it can be reactivated
Meanwhile, we Corporate Rebels, Management 3.0 enthusiasts or Holacracy champions, need to work on achieving a tipping point. There definitely is momentum for Liberation within even the conventional business community, and the Liberation movement is getting at least nearer to a Tipping point:
- There are more and more important multipliers embracing the values of Liberated Organizations, like for example Management Thinker Gary Hamel or Microsofts CEO Satya Nadella.
- The staying power of the leading figures (e.g. Brian J. Robertson, Jurgen Appelo or Frederick Laloux) is strong and their number of energized followers is expanding
- Liberated Organizations have all the hallmarks that deliver a deep sense of motivation to individuals: Innovation, Self-Fulfillment, Human Betterment and even Profits and Efficiency – what a package!
This package might feel too good to be true. But many inventions made people feel that way. Liberated Organizations are a social invention. Social inventions take more time than technical inventions to take root. But it might propel humans to new heights by enabling humanity to use our collective intelligence more systematically than ever before.
So young Padawan: Hold the space. Embrace an Agile Mindset. Fill organizations with the 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations. Management Practice by Management Practice.
This what I think. What do you think?