September 26, 2022
Runn's Book Club
Natalia Rossingol

Brave New Work: Summary & Key Takeaways for Evolutionary Organizations

Unlearn the old scientific habits of managing work and become an evolutionary organization with our summary of Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan.

Bringing up irrelevant issues. Giving incomplete instructions while training new workers. Talking at great length. Holding conferences when there is more important work to do… sounds familiar, doesn’t it? These things make work highly unproductive – and yet, they happen in every organization, and on a daily basis.

Now, a curious detail: these things were actual instructions in “Simple Sabotage Field Manual”, written in 1944 for German citizens sympathetic to Allies, and their purpose was to destabilize local communities and business.

So why do we sabotage our own work in a way those people were sabotaging the Nazi regime? Because we are used to doing so. We don’t take time to sit and think if our methods work. And we are not brave enough to change them.

Aaron Dignan, the founder of The Ready, an organization design company, has something to say about it. In his book “Brave New Work” (an allusion to Huxley, as you’ve probably guessed), he offers a new way of management model which reinterprets the roles of both leaders and team members. Dignan explains the origins of the modern management system and why this system doesn’t work anymore, providing new management ideas. 

In this article, we’ve summarized the main points Dignan talks about in “Brave New Work”.   

Part 1. The Future of Work

It seems likely that our economy is demonstrating what systems designers call graceful degradation. It’s functional even as parts of the system are failing us. This failure isn’t catastrophic. Not yet. But there are signs that the mindsets, structures, and incentives present in our economy are faulty.

The One Best Way

An interesting thing about work, says Dignan, is that everything has changed – everything but management. The org charts used in the 1910s look very similar to the org charts used today. Companies follow principles of management that were developed back in the industrial era without even thinking that they are probably outdated, and it’s not mandatory to follow them.

Dignan calls these companies Legacy Organizations – organizations that stick to the traditional approach.

One of the sources of this traditional approach is Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “Principles of Scientific Management”, published in 1911 (!). The main idea behind these principles is that “the thinking” and “the doing” must be separated. Taylor’s theory consists in breaking the work down into its smallest parts and finding one, and only one best way to finish each step, which was supposed to be done through scientific research. He believed that tasks couldn’t be done just on instinct. To that end, he had even made a serious scientific study of how to use the shovel.

Legacy Organizations are also influenced by fayolism – a theory of management developed by Henry Fayol that suggested a unity of direction: the same objective should be directed by one manager who uses one plan for the same goal.

Of course, there are many other people who also made their contribution – Henry Ford, Max Weber, Henry Gantt, to name a few. And these theories worked – in their societies and in their time. But they don’t work for us, believes Aaron Dignan. 

One problem is bureaucracy: 710 million hours per week – which is 16 percent of working life – is spent by US workers on planning and budgeting. 

There is also organizational debt – “a structure or policy that no longer serves an organization”. A good example of organizational debt is a knee-jerk reaction: when something goes wrong, we create a new role or process, and over a long time a one-step process becomes a twenty-step one. Another example is not considering the context: the last year’s budget is used as a baseline for this year’s one; employees are prohibited to write about their work on social media, etc.

So if Legacy Organizations use the wrong approach, who uses the right one?

Evolutionary Organizations

According to Dignan, evolutionary organizations represent self-management characterized by a lack of hierarchy and bureaucracy. There are two main things that best describe these organizations: they are people-positive and complexity-conscious. Let’s analyze what these two mean:

People-Positive

In “The Human Side of Enterprise” (1960), McGregor introduced two theories about human behavior which he called Theory X and Theory Y. These theories lead to different management styles.

Theory X assumes the following:

  1. People inherently don’t like to work.
  2. Because they don’t like to work, people need to be directed and controlled.
  3. An average human prefers to be directed and wants to avoid responsibility.  

As we can see, these assumptions are dominant in the modern world of work: job descriptions tell us what to do, our performance reviews tell us how to grow, and so on.

Theory Y suggests the alternative:

  1. The expenditure of physical and mental work is natural.
  2. If people are committed to the work they do, they can be guided by self-control.
  3. People are open to learning and actually seek responsibility.
  4. The intellectual potential of humans is only partially utilized; people do have a lot of imagination and can demonstrate ingenuity under certain conditions.

What’s interesting, we identify with Theory Y as individuals – we say we are creative and responsible, but when it comes to our colleagues, we label them as Theory X. This is a cognitive dissonance we live in.

But which theory is correct?

In the 1970s, a psychologist named Edward Deci began to study human motivation. Together with Richard Ryan, they developed a self-determination theory, which stated people are naturally curious and ready to explore. Autonomy and motivation are correlated: increase autonomy, and motivation will follow. In one of Cornell University studies, the business offered autonomy grew four times more than top-down companies.  

People-positive organizations – evolutionary organizations – treat people like “all-stars”; they assume and expect the best of everyone. 

Complexity-Conscious

We use the words “complex” and “complicated” interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. “Complicated” means consisting of different parts which interact with each other in a predictable way – for example, an engine inside a car is complicated.

“Complex” systems are made of many components – brain cells or people, and the interactions of these components are very unpredictable. These systems don’t require central control. They are more about relationships among their components.

Consider these examples: software is complicated, but creating software is complex. A rifle is complicated, but gun control is complex. Similarly, organizations aren’t complicated – they are complex, and the problems emerging there should not be solved – they should be managed.

According to the mainstream view, performance is the result of compliance. This leads to governing constraints – rules and policies for every scenario dictating what exactly needs to be done. But Complex-Conscious leaders see performance as “the result of collective intelligence, emergence, and self-regulation.” In other words, if we create certain conditions, we will find ways to achieve our goals. And this leads to enabling constraints – agreements that let people use free judgment.  

Being Brave

Scientific Management developed by Taylor will help you do what you’re already doing. But what about innovation? Innovation requires the ability to be brave and try new paths. 

We should remember that Scientific Management is not THE only way – after all, it’s only a way that was made up, and we can make up something different. As Dignan points out, we should be thankful for what still works for us, but move forward.

Part 2. The Operating System

It’s not easy to become a people-positive and complex-conscious organization – you may not know where to start. Exploring Evolutionary Organizations, Dignan found that there are twelve domains where these “courageous few” take risks. These domains form an Operating System (OS) Canvas, which can help us change our organizations. Here the author makes an important remark:

Just remember: The problem isn’t your leaders. It’s not your people. It’s not your strategy or even your business model. It’s your Operating System. Get the OS right and your organization will run itself.

Let’s shortly describe each of the 12 domains, their definitions, and some of the thoughts starters (things to consider about each domain) the author mentions, and how the domains actually work:

Work OS Canvas
Source: Brave New Work

1. Purpose: How we orient and steer

Purpose can be socially positive and socially destructive, and what makes the difference is intent – think about a charity organization and a terrorist one. If the purpose is too mundane, we lack meaning. If it’s too vague, we lack focus. If it’s too concrete, we don’t know what to do after we win.

Thought Starters

Fractal purpose: every organization has a purpose, but not every purpose is fractal – which is, not every purpose shows up at every level. Teams must see how their efforts serve the whole organization.

Steering metrics: in Legacy Organizations, a measurement is a form of control. This is not a good thing, as people start to improve their numbers for the sake of numbers, and not for the sake of a bigger purpose.

Proxy for purpose: you shouldn’t make the customer your purpose – customers are rather proxies for purpose, which means they show us if their needs correspond to our intent.

Purpose in Action

Essential intent: ask your team about their intent, and ask them what has to be done for the company to move in the direction of its purpose for the next half a year.

Six months or thirty years: have a clear vision of where you want to be in six months and thirty years – and adapt your thirty-year vision every six months.

2. Authority: How we share power and make decisions

Instead of centralizing power, try to distribute authority to teams and individuals at the edge.

Thought Starters

Freedom to fail: in Legacy Organizations, failure is unacceptable. But if we look at companies as complex systems, our job cannot be pure perfection – it is all about learning.

Minimum viable policy: policies are “organizational scar tissue”, collective punishment for things one individual did. They should be implemented if these things happen over and over again, but typically, they don’t. By minimizing policies, we maximize freedom.

Authority in Action

The waterline: a hole above the waterline means the boat can still sail, and a hole below it means it cannot. Institute a waterline of decisions. What decisions can be made without consultations?

The advice process: if decisions are below the waterline, seek advice from those who have experience.

3. Structure: How we organize and team

In evolutionary organizations, people can hold multiple roles in multiple places. There is no need for someone to report to someone who reports to someone. 

Thought Starters

Three structures: Niels Pflaeging, a self-proclaimed “management exorcist”, says there are three structures in every organization: formal (hierarchy), informal (social network behind the org chart), and value-creation (reputation). You decide how you develop each of them. 

One too many roles: recognize that you already hold many positions. For example, CEO is one part recruiter, one part spokesperson, and one part mentor.

Structure in Action

Dynamic teaming: give your team a chance to join or leave teams.

4. Strategy: How we plan and prioritize

Formulating a strategy means identifying “where to play and how to win.”

Thought Starters

Wild Swings and Sure Things: in his book “The Black Swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduced the concept of “the barbell strategy”. The strategy is about investing 90 percent of your assets in something safe, and placing the rest in what’s unsafe. 

Careful with OKRs: the concept of OKRs, developed by John Doerr, that consists in identifying strategic objectives for every quarter by each individual, can be misleading, in Dignan’s opinion, since it can take a form of top-down control as OKRs of subordinates must fit the company’s OKRs.

Strategy in Action

Even Over Statements: you cannot prioritize everything. Think about one thing that is important.

Scenario planning: you do need a plan. However, remember that a plan doesn’t say what must happen; it says what might happen, helping to cope with uncertainty.

5. Resources: How we invest our time and money

Organizations are living organisms, and resources are oxygen. And the budget is a solution to the resource allocation problem.

It’s All Relative: traditional budgets are too rigid, and that works against performance. Instead of committing to a specific revenue-growth target for a year, the Beyond Budgeting Institute – an organization founded to solve issues caused by traditional budgeting – suggest beating the average performance of competitors.

Resources in Action

Participatory Budgeting: allow your team to decide how exactly they can use the money for the next quarter.

6. Innovation: How we learn and evolve

Innovation doesn’t have to be intentional – Alexander Graham Bell wanted to help deaf students visualize sound, and invented the precursor to the telephone. The problem is, modern companies try to ensure conformity, and that’s the opposite of what’s needed for innovation. 

Thought Starters

Biological Barbers: sometimes it’s hard to decide how much innovation you need. Think about Taleb’s barbell strategy; or think about how his strategy is expressed in nature: scientists noticed that if a colony of ants finds an apple, they converge on it – but not all the ants. The rest of them keep exploring. Youn can learn from the ants.

Innovation in Action

Defaults vs. Standards: defaults are very similar to standards, with the only difference you don’t have to use them. Defaults represent things that have already worked; so if you’re not ready for experiments, feel free to use them. But if you’ve achieved some mastery, you can try a better way.

7. Workflow: How we divide and do the work

Workflow and work structures are not the same thing. A barista handles coffee, and a cashier handles money, but who will take orders? Can be either of them. Making this decision, we shape the workflow.

Thought Starters

Flow Interrupted: the ways teams in organizations are structured do not always reflect how the organization creates value (makes products/services). If you compare your org chart to how your people actually work, you may find many discrepancies. And that definitely harms the work process.

Workflow in Action

Limit WIP: WIP – work in progress – interrupts the workflow. Think about how many projects you can handle at once; then cut that number in half. And then, as Dignan says, if the number is more than seven, try again. 

8. Meetings: How we convene and coordinate

An average employee attends 62 meetings a month, and many of them are a waste of time – and money, because workers could use that time more rationally. This is why our approach to meetings needs to change.

Thought Starters

Death to Status Updates: one of the most dysfunctional – yet very typical – meetings is when a team presents work to a boss, waiting for feedback. Usually leaders lack the context which “can lead to naïve questions at best and irresponsible recommendations at worst”.  Instead, leaders should either join the workflow or become an advisor on request.

Meetings in Action

Retrospectives: a team should have a chance to stop and think over what happened and what they can learn from it. Usually this doesn’t happen: the temptation to move on is very strong.

9. Information: How we share and use data

Information is power, but we usually spend very little time on its architecture – on how we discover, store, and share it. You should also remember that information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not mastery.

Thought Starters

Transparency: in Evolutionary Organizations, employees have access to financial information like revenue and profit, and all relevant information is known to all whom it concerns.

Push & Pull. In Legacy Organizations, information is “pushed” – delivered to us, and we must decide if we need it. In Evolutionary Organizations, information is “pulled” – ready to search.

Information in Action

Kill Email: first, emails are more about privacy than transparency since you have to decide who you send them to. Second, they are “sinkholes”, like Dignan calls them, since it can be impossible to find a necessary email among thousands others.

Multiplayer Software:  use applications like DropBox Paper and Office 365 that allow users create and edit files simultaneously.

10. Membership: How we define and cultivate relationships

Each organization is a set of “membranes” – boundaries made up of agreements. Legacy Organizations think of membership as binary, seeing it as a legal status. Evolutionary organizations offer people different roles to play.

In and Out: if you’re fired from your role, in the majority of cases, you’re also fired from your organization. But in Evolutionary Organizations, you get a chance to get moved to a new role.

Membership in Action

User Manual to Me: this is a very interesting idea, You write a manual for your colleagues on how to cooperate with you. What drives you nuts? What is the best way to communicate with you? This can make team work much more pleasant. 

11. Mastery: How we grow and mature

We grow through discomfort – so we shouldn’t avoid situations that make us feel uncomfortable.

Thought Starters

Learn by doing: information delivery is not learning. Individuals need to work in projects where their skills are stretched.

Mastery in Action

Communities of Practice: those team members who share interests should work together. They don’t have to spend all their time together, but they need to have opportunities to learn from each other.

12. Compensation: How we pay and provide

Paying people more, you don’t really motivate them. Increasing low salaries can reduce dissatisfaction, but increasing already generous salaries will not bring any satisfaction. There are two factors influencing satisfaction and dissatisfaction – motivators (meaningful job and recognition) and hygiene factors (salary, security, company policies etc). 

Thought Starters

Formulaic pay. It’s one way to fight favoritism and bias. Once you’ve got your position, there can be no negotiating.

Compensation in Action

Transparent compensation: make salaries transparent, both within the company and to the broader public.

Part 3. The Change

The role culture appears to play in success and failure has led to a widespread belief that it’s something we can and should direct—something we can change. But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what culture is. Culture can’t be controlled or designed. It emerges.

To change a complex adaptive system – an organization – you have to live in the now, says Dignan. He suggests an approach called continuous participatory change: continuous because it stops treating change as something that happens rarely, and participatory – because it allows down-to-top transformation.

The continuous participatory change consists of the following elements:

  1. Commitment. Leaders are willing to give some power to their subordinates. This means giving team members autonomy to use their skills and judgment.
  2. Boundaries. Team members have some space where they can make mistakes – for example, it can be one team or one meeting.
  3. Priming. Teams receive an invitation to think and work differently. Typical topics to prime are self-organization, motivation, trust, psychological safety etc.
  4. Looping. Change is decentralized. A loop consists of three stages that are practiced recursively: sensing tensions, proposing practices, and conducting experiments.
  5. Criticality. This is the moment in transformation where to come back to old traditional approaches is impractical. At this point, the word “meeting” becomes too generic, and the word “safety”, on the contrary, acquires much more meaning.
  6. Continuity. A new system is already easy to understand; it is a form of commons.

Even though twentieth-century bureaucracy and capitalism brought the modern economic world where we are – and it’s definitely not a bad place – we need to evolve. And Dignan calls us to lead that renaissance. We should start choosing progress over perfection, and courage over caution. It may be hard to make the first step, but isn’t it high time we made it?

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