Why Passion Matters

Last week we looked at Ignite the Passion from Within. Transformation and the will to change are the products of passion. They are the fruits of a righteous discontent with the status quo. Sadly, the average workplace is a buzz killer. Petty rules, pedestrian goals, and pyramidal structures drain the emotional vitality out of work. Maybe that didn’t matter in the knowledge economy. Customers today expect the exceptional, but few organisations deliver it. The problem is not a lack of competence, but a lack of ardor. In business as in life, the difference between ‘insipid’ and ‘inspired’ is passion. With returns to mediocrity rapidly declining, passion matters now more than ever.

We all want to work in a ‘passion’ led organization. If that is true then:

None of this is OK, not by a long shot, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Our organizations were designed to be inhuman. As Max Weber noted more than a century ago, “Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is “dehumanized.” By that measure, our organizations should be pretty damned perfect by now, but they’re not.

As a result, our organizations are less adaptable, less creative and less inspiring. In other words, less human, than we are. And it’s getting worse. Drucker thought bureaucracy would contract as the knowledge economy grew. In 1988, he predicted that by 2008, “the typical large business would have fewer than half the levels of management of its counterpart at the time, and only a third as many managers.” Well, that didn’t happen.

If we’re stuck, it’s not because we lack role models. We have enough exemplars to know it’s possible to buy the blessings of bureaucracy duty-free. You can achieve control, coordination and consistency without consuming 30% of human labor in “bureaucratic paper shuffling”. And yet our organizations are still riddled with “bureau-sclerosis”.

Why? Because—and we need to take responsibility here—we’ve been insufficiently honest about the cost of bureaucracy, insufficiently brave in confronting those who defend it, and insufficiently creative in crafting alternatives.

So let’s start by being forthright about what bureaucracy costs us. Gary Hamel estimates that if we reduced the bureaucratic burden in OECD economies by half, we’d add $9 trillion to economic output. These are the direct benefits from doubling the average span of control and cutting bureaucratic busywork in half.

The indirect benefits, though hard to quantify, would be even greater. Friction conformity, insularity, rigidity, apathy, politicking—these are the hidden costs of bureaucracy, and few organizations have a way of measuring them. That’s a problem, because what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get attention.

Having calibrated the cost, we need to take on the apologists. Though few executives admit to being fans of bureaucracy, fewer still seem genuinely committed to killing it. We shouldn’t be surprised.

Bureaucracy is a massive, role-playing game. If you’re an advanced player, you know how to deflect blame, defend turf, manage up, hoard resources, trade favors, negotiate targets and avoid scrutiny. Those who excel at the game, unsurprisingly, are unenthusiastic about changing it.

Yet it’s impossible to dismantle bureaucracy without redistributing authority.

We have to face the fact that a post-bureaucratic organization is also a post-managerial organization, where power is no longer calibrated by headcount, budget and decision rights.

Unless we’re willing to be similarly honest and forthright, we’re part of the problem, not the solution. But before challenging others, we need to challenge ourselves. In what ways are we still paying allegiance to the bureaucratic confederacy?

We need something that routes around the old power structure; that builds a coalition of the willing; that is revolutionary in intent and evolutionary in execution.

What might this look like?

What’s novel isn’t the notion of collaborative innovation, or the idea of experimentation. What’s new is creating an all-hands process where change is socially constructed, and rolls up, not out. This is the antithesis of “change management”—an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Aristocracy, slavery, & patriarchy—these institutions were inhuman at their core. Each was an iron cage—and not always metaphorically.

Deeply embedded social systems can be changed.

Yet when you look back, you realize these social cankers didn’t yield to utilitarian arguments. In each case, the strong, hard wedge that cracked the foundations of the prevailing social consensus wasn’t a pragmatic argument, but a moral one; not “this doesn’t work,” but “this is wrong.

Institutions change when we change; when we trade resignation for indignation. It’s time to admit what we have long known to be true: our organizations are at odds with our values—not just in how they foul the environment, misuse our personal data, or corrupt the political process, but in how they treat the human beings whose lives they consume.

When this conviction becomes fixed in our hearts and, when we surrender our interests in protecting the status quo, then we’ll have the chance, at long last, of building organizations that are as amazing as the people who inhabit them.

From next week we are going to look at the stages and steps in embedding a Passion led organisation.

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