Putting People First

Last week we made The Business Case For Passion. Transformation and the will to change are the products of passion. They are the fruits of a righteous discontent with the status quo. Just like Alanis Morrisette, I find it ironic that the vicinity of the San Andreas fault lies so close to Silicon Valley’s feverish, get it done yesterday work norms. Build your company quick cause tomorrow we may all get flattened.

Like many sorts of change, major tectonic events happen very slowly and then all of a sudden. The earth’s wandering plates are held in check by friction for decades or centuries, and then one day the forces of change finally break loose and the planet erupts.

Social convulsions aren’t usually as abrupt as earthquakes, but they can still be startling, particularly to those who aren’t paying attention. Years of repressed resentments and bottled up frustrations can suddenly burst forth and fracture long-standing relationships.

It happened in 1773 when angry colonists dumped 300 chests of British tea into Boston Harbour. It happened in 1966 when determined civil rights campaigners marched from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol. It happened in 1989 when euphoric Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, and again in 2011 when a Twitter-enabled citizen’s revolt forced Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak from power. Of recent times we have seen marriage equality fought for and momentum swing towards a revised Australia Day.

And it’s happening right now, along the fault line that runs between individuals and institutions.

Over the past few years, we have seen a fundamental breakdown in the trust that individuals are willing to place in large organisations and in the people who run them. When asked to rate the ethics of various professions in a recent Gallup poll, those who represent big business and big government near the bottom.

In the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, barely one-quarter said they would regard the information they receive from a company CEO as “highly credible” or “extremely credible.”

With the latter, in recent years, millions of us have rushed to take advantage of the Internet’s open and meritocratic architecture. We have used the Web to express our opinions, to expose the misdeeds of the powerful, to build online communities, and to launch new grassroot initiatives. As we have done so, we have become less tolerant of the closed, top-down power structures that we encounter in the offline world.

Crack open the head of an average manager, and you’ll find a way of thinking that puts the institution in front of, or on top of the individual. The company hires employees to produce goods and services that yield profits for shareholders. In this model, the individual is to the institution what human beings were to the Matrix – raw material, factors of production hired to serve the institution’s goals. In real life, human beings aren’t plugged into machines, but they’re often plugged into roles that don’t suit them and jobs that don’t fulfill them. Usually, it is the individual who must conform to the institution rather than the other way around. If you doubt this, ask yourself what task would you take on if you were free to choose? What boss would you work for if it were up to you?

We can, though, imagine a different model, one where the interests of the individual takes preference. Note here the substitution of the word “organization” for “institution.” The latter word implies a lot of structure and a hierarchical distribution of authority. The word organization is a bit more ambiguous, something networked, like an open source software project. Here, the people in charge are servant leaders who regard their constituents as volunteers, even if they’re paid. There is an explicit understanding that the organization can only succeed if it meets the needs of those who support it. In this model, the organization, not the individual, is the instrument.

Building human-centred organisations (like Salesforce) doesn’t imply a return to the paternalistic, corporate welfare practices of the nineteenth century. Most of us don’t want to be nannied. We understand we live in an uncertain world, where no one can guarantee our job security. We also understand that individual interests vary, and that no single organization can reconcile all our competing demands. Nevertheless, we expect our institutions to be our servants and not the reverse. This implies organisations that are built around some simple principles:

But you ask, can an institution-centric enterprise turn itself inside out? Can leaders change their mental models? Can they be induced to surrender their prerogatives? Can command-and-control types reinvent themselves as mobilise and mentor types? And can all this happen without undermining operational effectiveness? I think the answer is yes and next week I’ll share a heartening example.

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