Transformation Superpowers: The heroism organisational innovation needs

A Google search for “organizational change” delivers 5,530,000 results in .62 seconds. My Twitter and LinkedIn streams are full of articles and other resources about Change, New Work, Agile Leadership, advanced collaboration, autonomous teams and many more great things that are happening out there. However, this brave new world is hard to find in real life: Recently I read somewhere that there are more articles about Holacracy than organisations actually running Holacracy …

The current tech media narrative tells us that if you’re an engineering high potential with no commitments outside of work and you get lucky, you can go work for a Silicon Valley company and spearhead the creation of tomorrow. But only so many of us are engineers or high potentials and the Silicon Valley is only about 70 kilometers long.
Plus not everything in the valley is A-okay, either: Apparently Tesla and SpaceX systematically overwork and underpay their employees in exchange for offering a meaningful purpose to contribute to – Elon Musk recently had to settle a class-action lawsuit for 4 million USD out of court.

And what about those of us who aren’t engineers or feel a different calling? I believe we can agree that there are too few companies and job opportunities that embrace human nature and make it possible for employees to develop their real self and be all they are capable of. So in pursuit of the goal to offer everyone meaningful work in exchange for good pay, we have two options:

  1. Build new, modern organisations.
  2. Transform existing organisations.

Our work focuses on option two; we want to enable established organisations to make a sustainable change for better working lives and future profitability – and yes, those two goals are in perfect alignment: Mark Poppenborg from German think tank intrinsify!me just wrote a great two-part article outlining how focus on adding value is the way to achieve employee satisfaction – if you’re proficient in German I highly recommend you give it a go; you can find part 1 of the article here.

In short, Mark’s core message is to strip away busywork that doesn’t contribute to customer value and to give innovation initiatives to this effect strong management support: By actively producing customer benefits in a setting free from outdated and dysfunctional organisational limitations, employees find purpose, create value for all stakeholders and achieve happiness in their work as a result. Unsurprisingly, really: After all, that’s probably why they were offered and accepted their individual jobs in the first place.

What does it take for such approaches to work at your organisation? If you’re familiar with management theory, you probably know Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y about management and motivation regarding human work: Theory X states that “the average employee has little to no ambition, shies away from work or responsibilities, and is individual-goal oriented.” In contrast, Theory Y views workers as “internally motivated, [enjoying] their labor in the company, and [working] to better themselves without a direct ‘reward’ in return.”
McGregor himself was unsure which of the two theories was right until he made a discovery that is the most essential part about Theory X and Theory Y – they are both correct, because they are self-fulfilling prophecies. Depending on which theory you subscribe to, your management approach and the outcome will be very different:

  • If you view workers as Type X employees you will likely set up a system of rewards and penalties with strict limitations and little freedom – the result is that people will feel vilified, untrustworthy of responsibility and unsupported by management. Employees will thus create workarounds to game the system, aiming for individual profit in a hostile environment – in doing so they will prove you were right to label them as Type X.
  • If you believe in Type Y qualities in your workforce the environment will probably be geared towards client and job satisfaction, autonomous responsibility and lots of collaboration opportunities. As a result, your employees will rise to the occasion, taking on responsibilities and gladly giving all they have to give to the task of creating value for the company and its clients – they will deliver proof that you were right seeing them as Type Y.

So there you have it. People will always adapt to their surroundings and react to impulses; in fact you could argue that’s all us humans ever do – and we’re really good at it, too.
Organisations are similar: They are designed to suit their individual surroundings and operate based on the necessities of their ecosystem. In the course of history the prevailing organisational models have shifted in stages – they have been described by author Frederic Laloux and others as

  1. Red Organisations driven by fear and power such as gangs and militias,
  2. Amber Organisations powered by hierarchical command and control structures like churches or the military,
  3. Orange Organisations running on management by objectives/profit and growth mechanisms such as large corporations typical today and
  4. Green Organisations focusing on shared values and employee empowerment – but still operating within the classic pyramid structure of dominator hierarchies: A manager needs to actively delegate responsibility downwards or actively empower employees to make autonomous decisions.

All of these models brought significant breakthroughs and are perfectly valid within the systems they were created by and for: If you’re operating within a failed state plagued by civil war, you need a powerful hand and strong control even today.

The next step from green is considered to be Teal Organisations – a model beyond the limitations of today’s seemingly unalterable organisational features such as hierarchical management and decision-making or centralised staff functions. Whether they were created from scratch such as Dutch healthcare provider Buurtzorg or transformed from Orange such as French automotive supplier FAVI, Teal Organisations thrive regardless of where their employees come from, simply by offering them the appropriate environment to outgrow the limitations of traditionally managed organisations full of politics, busywork and hierarchical decision-making.

Google’s Director of People Analytics, Abeer Dubey came to the same realisation in an interview with TalentCulture: “The individuals who make up a team matter far less than the ways they interact with, and view, their collaborators and the overall project. People do their best work when they feel they have strong goals, can rely on each other and believe their work makes a difference.”

Development from one stage to another has historically occurred only when society was faced with a challenge that could not be mastered from the then-current paradigm. In a world that is increasingly VUCA, those organisations all around the world that can already be considered Teal are doing extremely well, able to adapt with amazing speed to the fluid state of modern economical environments and outperforming competitors both in economical aspects and regarding employee attraction/retention. It stands to reason that we will see more Teal successes in an age of exponential progress that will likely see neural implants within the next two decades.

As we’ve noted before, the future is happening whether you want it to or not – and the way for you to make your opinion matter is to start co-creating it today. It takes surprisingly little heroism to transform an organisation into a modern, nurturing environment full of happy overachievers: The only transformation superpowers you will need are a strong belief in human qualities – and the trust to set their powers free.

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