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The understanding that agility is essential in a VUCA world is now widespread. What isn’t widespread yet is the realisation that to get agile work you need new ways of managing. You have to let the people do the work, and want to. Only liberated knowledge workers can be agile.

Managing change is not just about getting acceptance. We have to let go of command-and-control. Let the people doing the work design the work. Management should observe, navigate, and facilitate. People should be the change, not just concede to it.

Conventionally, we believed managers should be able to “make” things happen to plan. So they tried, made a big noise when they did, and faked it when they didn’t (because failure was unacceptable). Thinking in simpler, deterministic terms has always been an approximation, but one we got away with in a simpler, more stable world. Less so these days. In a given situation, the only way to know what is correct is to experiment, therefore we cannot assert superior knowledge except with hindsight. All human systems are “suck it and see”: nobody knows.

Conventionally, employees accepted that theatre was normal, pretending an unreal result. Coercion by bosses was normal: anger, punishment, overwork. Unethical pursuit of that you don’t personally believe in was normal: want a job, suck it up. We don’t buy that any more.

We got away with coercion more often in the past because the more stable world allowed us to hold constraints in place to make people do what we needed. E.g. project management and it’s emphasis on measurement over time. A VUCA* world changes too fast, so constraints fail. In a stable world, the approximation that work is simple, linear, constrained, predictable, was near enough. The error between theatre and reality was small over time. As the world goes faster, forced knowledge work is too slow and constrained.

You can still force transactional workers to workforce transactional workers to work: farming, labourers, pieceworkers, factory, clerical… If you can measure them you can force them and still get productivity. It don’t work for knowledge workers. If they’re unhappy, you get slow, low quality work.  As the proportion of knowledge work is rising in the service economy and now the digital economy, bosses are (finally) waking up to the need to do what employees want and believe in, and to let it be fun. You have more success that way.

Bezos still gets to sweat his transactional workers, and Musk can use bro culture as the shared vision to drive productivity with machismo, and Zuckerberg… I don’t know how Zuck gets away with it, I’m guessing cognitive capture like a tobacco firm. We aren’t all there yet. [Uncomfortable with the attitude, language, and views? Welcome to the new ways of thinking: honesty, integrity, ethics, transparency, diversity, enlightenment, and bringing our whole selves.]

…but the movement to new ways of work is real, visible everywhere. Knowledge workers are being liberated to do great work. It gives me hope of success, better lives, and social change. We see it in our clients (case studies here, video to come).

Here’s a thought that only just came to me: could this discussion hold the key to the Solow Productivity Paradox, and the later PP 2.0?  en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Productiv…

“during the past decade, productivity growth in advanced economies was ‘persistently weak’ during exactly the same period when smartphone shipments increased tenfold” www.wired.com/story/email-slack-productivity-parad…

 

The understanding that agility is essential in a VUCA world is now widespread. What isn’t widespread yet is the realisation that to get agile work you need new ways of managing. You have to let the people do the work, and want to. Only liberated knowledge workers can be agile. Even less widely accepted is that this includes transactional workers. It might look like they repeat the same thing, which allows coercion, but not any more. The work changes: they need to be agile too. Which leads to the discovery that transactional workers are a lot smarter than their bosses give them credit for. Once they’re liberated, they can contribute far more than sweat. E.g. Nucor Steel.

When all workers are liberated to do the work they want to do, believe in, share a vision for, we get maximum agility (and resilience), which gives organisations the adaptability to survive and thrive in a VUCA world.

The end game is amazing: when those who own the organisation set it free to allow those working in it to make it their organisation, to collectively decide its Why, and unite to go there. We’re not sure of any organisation that truly does that yet (Buurtzorg come close) but the trajectory of Teal is clear.

 

We develop these ideas – and others – under the banner of S&T Happens: Surviving and Thriving in a VUCA World. Come see the latest here.

 

* Surely everyone has heard of VUCA by now: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. If you haven’t heard about VUCA yet, google it – we are not about to give you yet another potted history. We slightly change the wording of VUCA = volatile, uncertain, complicated, and ambiguous. VUCA adds up to complex.