Disruption Reflections: Humanity Matters

There are many lessons we can garner from COVID-19. And many myths dispelled. Whether it has been the lockdown, or the bushfires at the start of the year or the current Black Lives Matter movement, passions are ignited when humanity is left vulnerable. One silver lining that has occurred is that the layers of bureaucracy that we have become accustomed to has been broken and human elements such as trust, empathy & compassion has come to the fore. Yet for all their accomplishments, our organizations can be in­cremental, and uninspiring. Moving forward, companies have to acknowledge the inventive firepower our employees exude. If we have learnt anything it as human beings, we are resilient, creative, and passionate. The fact that our organizations are not suggests that in some important ways, they are less human than we are.

Ironically, it seems that human built organiza­tions have scant room for exactly those things that make us special—things like courage, intuition, love, playfulness, and artistry. If our organizations are inhuman, it’s because we designed them to be so—whether consciously or not. Every institution is an assemblage of choices about how best to or­ganize human beings in light of some particular goal. We must be no less radical in rethinking the foundations of human organizations. Post COVID-19, we must do our part to emancipate the human spirit. It is here we find a cause worth serving—to build organiza­tions that give every human being the opportunity to thrive.

Unlike human beings, organizations are pretty much crap at change. That’s why incumbents so often find themselves on the back foot. Today, we expect the newcomers to beat the geezers. Instinctively, we know that in a fast-­changing world, resources are no substitute for resourcefulness— and that even the smartest companies are vulnerable.

Despite its commanding lead in search, Google missed the opportunity to take a pioneering role in social media. By the time it launched Google+, Facebook had built an insurmountable lead. When Apple’s iTunes was slow to offer streaming content, it opened the door to newbies like Spotify and Netflix. When eHarmony, a pioneer in online dating, was tardy in re­sponding to the smartphone revolution, Tinder filled the gap.

Shareholders aren’t the only losers when a company gets stuck in the mud. Organizations that are slow to change, tie up talent and capital that would be better deployed elsewhere. This depresses wages and returns across the economy. Inertial organizations also postpone the future. Having been shamed by Tesla, every major vehicle maker now plans to bring a full range of electric vehicles to market. That’ll be great for the planet, but it would have been better if the incumbents had embarked on this quest years ago, rather than waiting for a newbie to rub their noses in the future. What we need are organizations with an “evolutionary advantage”—a capacity to change as fast as change itself.

Innovation is the fuel for renewal. CEOs get this. In a Boston Consulting Group poll, 79% of leaders rated innovation a top priority. They know that innovation is the only insurance against irrelevance. Yet in another survey, this one conducted by McKinsey & Company, 94% of executives expressed disappointment with their organization’s innova­tion performance.

Despite this, a capacity for innovation is the hallmark of our species. Each of us was born to create—whether it’s landscaping a garden, writing a blog, composing a photograph, inventing a recipe, developing an app, or starting a business. A recent study of Australian millennials, aged thirty to thirty nine, found that 55% of them had used online videos to hone their creative skills, with a significant number also posting a handcrafted object for sale online.

Despite a torrent of books promising to unlock the secrets of inno­vation, large organizations seem as incapable as ever of unleashing the creative energy of their people. Some management pundits, like the nineteenth­ century skeptics who believed human beings would never fly, claim that large companies are genetically incapable of game­ changing innovation. We understand their pessimism, but are more hopeful. Prior to COVID, across the globe 1 million people were airborne at any moment. If we aim high, there’s no reason our organizations can’t soar as well.

At the bottom is obedience. Every organization depends on employees who are capable of following basic rules around safety, financial disci­pline, and customer care. Next is diligence. An organization needs em­ployees who are willing to work hard and take responsibility for results. The third level is expertise. To be effective in their jobs, team members need the requisite skills. While these capabilities—obedience, diligence, and expertise—are essential, they seldom create much value. Winning in the creative economy requires more. An organization needs people with initiative—self­ starters who are proactive, who don’t wait to be asked and aren’t bound by their job description. Equally critical is creativity— people who are able to reframe problems and generate novel solutions. Finally, at the top, is daring—a willingness to stretch oneself and take risks for a laudable cause.

These higher order capabilities are the products of passion, of a com­mitment to something that inspires us, something outside ourselves that needs and deserves the best of who we are. Initiative, creativity, and valor can’t be commanded. They are gifts. Every employee gets to decide, “Do I bring these gifts to work today, or not?” and as the Gallup data suggests, the answer is usually “no” and, sometimes, “hell, no.” If the goal is to build a self -renewing organization that ventures boldly into the future, then everything hinges ultimately on willing, enthusiastic, joyful engagement.

There’s no secret about what drives engagement. From Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise to Dan Pink’s Drive, the formula hasn’t changed in sixty years: purpose, autonomy, collegiality, and the opportunity to grow. Unfortunately, engagement levels haven’t changed much either. It seems that every generation rediscovers the es­sential elements of human engagement and then does nothing.

The engagement deficit isn’t about what people do at work, but how they’re managed. In Gallup’s research, 70% of the variation in en­gagement scores was explained by differences in the attitudes and behav­iors of the employee’s boss. For example, employees who felt they could approach their boss with any type of question were more engaged than those who couldn’t. “But wait,” you say, “if two thirds of employees are dis­engaged, does this mean most managers are jerks?” Maybe, but here’s the thing: managers are no more engaged than their subordinates. Per Gallup, 51% of managers are not engaged, and 14% are actively disengaged. In other words, your boss is probably just as disheartened as you are.

To move beyond the old model, we must understand the precise ways in which bureaucracy has disabled our organizations. We must face up to the costs of bureaucratic malaise. We must learn from the manage­ment vanguard—progressive organizations that have demonstrated the viability and value of post bureaucratic management practices. We must embrace new human­ centric principles and operationalize them within our organizations. We must rid ourselves of bureaucratic mindsets and rethink our core assumptions about “leadership” and “change manage­ment.”

For now, let’s be clear on one thing: bureaucracy must die. We can no longer afford its pernicious side effects. As humankind’s most deeply en­trenched social technology, it will be hard to uproot, but that’s OK. And with our workplace being disrupted we have a chance. You were put on this earth to do something significant, heroic even, and what could be more heroic than creating, at long last, organizations that are fully human?

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