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 Running companies on coercion or incentives is outdated.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.

1 reply
  1. JimV
    JimV says:

    Great article. Recently, I’ve been asking a simple question: “Where in your company is decision-making restricted to a select few people? This is where you are vulnerable.” Liberated Companies avoid this timeless and inescapable trap.

    Reply

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