Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
The past has gone but the future’s not here yet
About seven years ago I went to an event called “Why aren’t organisations shifting?”, where a bunch of people enthusiastically shared ideas about new ways of working, creating more human-centred workplaces and the like. We all agreed that the way forward was clear and obvious and that the pressure for change was getting to a level where things just had to happen.
It felt as if we were standing on the fault line between the past and the future and tension between these two tectonic plates was building to the level where friction and inertia would be overcome. We felt we were on the verge of a seismic shift in organisation structures and behaviours, a veritable earthquake that would shake down the old and exhausted edifices of the past.
We went home and waited for the earthquake.
Dear reader, the earthquake did not happen.
Well, not as we expected. Along came COVID, which was an earthquake but not on the same fault line, caused by pressure from a completely unexpected direction. And whilst it brought about some welcome changes, it didn’t destroy the edifices of the past, which many ‘leaders’ are now trying to shore up and refurbish.
The COVID shock has caused a bit of slippage on the original fault line but the tension between the past and the future remains, unresolved.
We’re still asking the question. “What aren’t organisations shifting?”. Let’s explore some possible reasons.
Waiting In Vain
We thought there would be a shift from the command-and-control hierarchies that have dominated to more autonomous, self-organising and organic structures (Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations’ had just come out and was very influential on our thinking). Yet, for all the attempts at becoming more agile, innovative and collaborative, organisations are still mostly hierarchical and with a significant degree of command-and-control operation.
Some of this must simply be down to the natural resilience of the status quo to change. After all, that’s how it gets to be the status quo. An aversion to risk is also a factor. ‘Better to stick with the devil you know’ is a maxim that still holds in the business world, and especially amongst the financial community.
People are naturally resistant to change as well. Typically, they will resist until staying where they are becomes more painful than moving or until events take over - as we saw with COVID when organisations where forced to move to mobile working, something the could have done ten years or more earlier. It’s this effect that gave rise to the idea of creating a ‘burning platform’ to push change through (although it’s a somewhat discredited approach these days).
But we see organisations are now on fire and there’s no change, just a doubling down on the ways of the past and evermore frantic attempts to roll back the changes that COVID ushered in with ‘Return To Office’ mandates, increased surveillance and re-assertion of bureaucratic processes.
It’s a determined attempt to return to ‘what we know’, a refusal to accept that the world has changed and it’s time to adapt.
Which is stupid, isn’t it?
What A Fool Believes
We need leaders to initiate the change because that’s the way the current system works, they have the power and control (well, mostly. More of that later). Their failure to do this could be due to a number of different reasons
I’ve written before about it being down to power, status and ego. Looking at the pronouncement of ‘industry leaders’, this is plausible and surely part of the explanation - but not the only reason.
I’ve also written about the detachment of senior management from the realities of the business. It’s why we see completely different views expressed by the C-suite and the employees at the workface on how working from home affects productivity. Senior leaders work very differently, they live in a separate and isolated stratum of society and they often don’t understand what goes on in the organisations they run. They are just out of touch with reality.
They’re also not motivated to embrace change. The are the winners in the current system, the status quo serves them very well, so they obviously want to return to it.
But it’s also possible that they are just not up to the job. They aren’t capable of leading the change that’s required.
They have been promoted for their abilities at completing tasks, running processes and achieving targets. They have mostly operated in a stable economic and social environment where the future was largely predictable. Now, however, they really need to be good at people stuff, pattern-recognition and dealing with uncertainty. They are now operating in a very unstable environment (often referred to as VUCA) where the future is unknown and emergent. It’s like putting a football team into a dance competition - a mismatch of abilities with the demands.
It’s not just at a skill level they are lacking. Many of them don’t have the emotional intelligence to work in this new way.
More importantly, though, many of them may lack the intellectual capacity for the work ahead of them. We think of our leaders as being well-educated but that was often 30 or 40 years ago, when only a few people got degrees. If they did an MBA, it’s probably reduced their capacity to think creatively. They just don’t have the complex thinking abilities required of them, and they may lack the capacity or the time to develop them. How can they move from the linear thinking of the past to the systems thinking of the future without that capacity of thought?
Even if they appreciate the need to change, it’s simply beyond them to do it. It’s in the ‘Too Hard’ box, so they ignore and try to turn the world back to the time when they were comfortable.
Stuck In The Middle With You
Some of the capacity for change has to be found within the middle and lower management layers, where many of the same issues exist. In addition, they (and, indeed, the rest of us) have been subjected to a process of corporate stupification and desensitisation that has grown stronger over the years. Employees have been infantilised by process-driven job descriptions and micro-management and have become inured to the increasing toxicity and brutality of the workplace.
That’s why so many are barely engaged in their work. They have shut down much of their thinking and feeling, getting through the day on autopilot, operating as they mindless cogs that the system that only asks that of them. Even if they have got the capacity to implement the change needed, it’s going to take time and effort to reconnect to and reawaken those capabilities.
Go Your Own Way
So are we stuck in this half-in, half-out situation forever? Will we have a perpetual tug-of-war between the C-Suite trying to drag everyone back to the office and the employees trying to work from any BUT the office? How does this resolve itself?
I don’t know but I do see grounds for hope.
Firstly, some organisations DO have leaders who are capable of making these changes and they are pushing forward. They are creating digital-first, agile and adaptive organisations that put their people at the centre and embrace new ways of working. This will give them considerable competitive advantage they will out-compete the laggards.
Secondly, not all employees have succumbed to corporate stultification and they still have the capacity to make change happen. They are determined to use their agency, they are ready to start some mutinies.
I often like to remind people “No-one’s coming to save you”. That should be apparent to you now. It’s not just that they won’t, they can’t. It’s down to you.
I said earlier that the ‘leaders’ have the power and control but they don’t have all of it. Each of us has agency, each of us can make change happen within our circle of influence. We can create a better environment around us and connect up with others to show there are better alternatives. That’s how we can create change from the bottom up and the middle out.
Besides, change is an inside out process. It has to start within you. Because no-one else is going to make it happen.