Ackoff, Ambiguity, Black Swans, business, complexity, Corporations, Disorder, Dissonance, Drucker Forum 2013, False Comfort, future, Hamel, Hollnagel, Humanity, Individuality, Industrial Revolution, management, Organizational Development, paradox, philosophy, Predictability, Professional Fulfillment, Resilience, Resonance, Scale, Snowden, Society, Taleb, Variance, Wall Street
With all the benefits derived from the advances in standard of living, our modern society suffers from an apparent paradox which can be best paraphrased as “if everyone is special, then no one is”.
We strive for individuality even as the economic affluence required to express ourselves is increasingly tied to economies of scale and the uniformity they foster. We do our best to proclaim our uniqueness to the world on social media pages, but have to make use of highly standardized templates in the process. We share in the belief (and rightfully so) that the very success of our modern society depends on scale, yet it is precisely scale that appears to generate confusion when it comes to the most intimate aspects of our human identity.
This apparent paradox I believe is a key source of dissonance spanning our professional and personal lives, a phenomenon that perturbs our ability to celebrate the uniqueness of our individual identities, and which results in a growing degree of general dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment. But since evolution cannot be undone and progress denied, is there something we can do about this apparent dilemma? Let’s first narrow and deepen the argument.
Let me focus the conversation on the professional aspect, where I believe this tacitly contagious disorder represents a significant de-motivator with tangible negative impacts on business bottom line. It is by now I believe clear that the corporate archetype will continue to dominate the knowledge economy. And the current corporate paradigm embeds the following paradox: it is ubiquitously communicated that people are the most valued “asset”, yet we are mostly expected to operate uniformly so that business operations can scale. If people are the most important asset, than the most valuable side of humanity is uniqueness, i.e. variance of thought and action, which is in direct conflict with the uniformity demanded for scale of operations. The explicit message and the implicit psychology don’t resonate, leaving the professional working class at the mercy of subconscious confusion. I have used the word “subconscious” intentionally in the previous sentence: I believe we are indirectly aware of this reality by virtue of its visible impacts. There simply isn’t time for conscious rationalization in today’s frantic pace.
So where did scale come from? Was it an explicit invention or an unintended consequence? I contend that scale came with the Industrial Revolution and its celebration of machines and technology: it is the classical example of new dilemmas as a by-product of progress. And so, I strongly believe that one of the main reasons we are struggling with our own individuality is that we have yet to invent an effective way of harmonizing (the individual nature of) humanity and (the scalable nature of) technology, and to make sure we don’t approach the two with the same mindset.
This takes me to the field of organizational development, where the Holy Grail is an organization that effectively reconciles human fulfillment with corporate values, which, in light of the above argument, can be viewed as proxies for individuality and scale. We can now further refine the paradox: how can individuality and scale – apparently two diametrically opposed concepts – not just co-exist but be brought into resonance?
Enter the 21st century with an infusion of complexity, systems and design thinking to the science and practice of management and a chance to resolving this perceived disorder is no longer out of sight. What Charles Handy, the management philosopher, Dave Snowden, the complexity sage, and Erik Hollnagel, the resilience professor emeritus, agree on is this: an effective conciliation of individuality and scale is predicated upon the concept of “necessary ambiguity”, or embracing the variance and thus vagueness that comes with human individuality. An implementation of such a complexity-aligned concept can be envisioned thus: corporate mandates are loosely flowed down and embed a degree of “necessary ambiguity” so that the individual can interpret and embrace them within his or her own highly unique context. This in turn allows an organization’s culture to move from a compliant to a “resonant” one, with a corresponding shift from robust to resilient business dynamics. This is just the first step towards what Russell Ackoff calls the “democratic corporation”, a revolution in organizational thinking that would drive the professional organization to a model more closely aligned with the self-organization principles called out by Elizabeth McMillan. Of course this move towards embracing variance through a celebration of individuality throws out the window the predictability demanded by our institutions (Wall Street, etc.) on which we have come to believe we so much depend, but, as Nassim Taleb so eloquently argued in his 2007 “Black Swan” best-seller and as the 2008 Financial Crises demonstrated, predictability and control are only mirages.
Very much in line with Gary Hamel’s thesis that management is humanity’s greatest invention of the last century and also the most important investment we can make in our future, I propose that fixing the dissonant aspects of the corporate paradigm and upgrading our management technology is a great place to start if we are to address the emergent dillemas of our times – after all more of us work in large corporations, and we spend more than half our entire lives at work. Now as far as management technology, I propose we start paying more than polite attention to complexity and its disciples. It may very well prove to be our only true friend in resolving the paradoxes presented by the relentless progress of our society.