Understanding 21st century work

In the beginning, there was an idea; a simple design that might change the world and surely will delight all our customers. That idea, I shared it with all my team, and we were wholly engaged because it wasn’t a project, it was a case.

Our energy and commitment were awesome. We worked with our customer, and he got some small piece of work completed every month, and our client gave us a lot of feedback, allowing us to sharpen our impact. After a couple of months, the project is delivered, and we all celebrated that tremendous achievement.

It was November, and we had discussed with the customer on new evolutions of that project. At that time, my manager came to me for my yearly evaluation. At the end of that meeting, he told me “Look, you and your team did a great job. We have this project running out the roof. Would you like to take over and save us?”.

I asked what will happen with the current project? He told me that he has already chosen a junior project manager who can take over.

What happened? The superhero instinct pushes me to accept the challenge. I came back to the team and told them that I received the new challenge, and I wanted to know who is following me.

Some said that they had already another assignment from their line managers, and only a few were left to follow me.

And here is the starting point of the misery that occurs in 21st-century organizations. Instead of keeping the existing team dynamic to evolve with the customer, the units are split with the idea that the process, the magic, might repeat. In the early 1990s, the team remained, and another group has been formed with the mentorship of the best team.

IKEA Effect.

“labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the fruits of one’s labor: even constructing a standardized bureau, an arduous, solitary task, can lead people to overvalue their (often poorly constructed) creations.”(Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon, Dan Ariely).

What happened? The emergence of “Management” occurred. At the end of the 1990s, most of the enterprises focused on increasing their maturity level following CMMI standards or even worse the ISOs. That means that the purpose of an enterprise shifted from satisfying its customers to reach standard maturity key performance indicators.

Consequence, the management believed that processes only would help to ensure the wealth of the enterprise. The approach where “patterns precede data” believes that every organization works as a factory and that “human resources” are commodities to serve demand coming top-down.

That “factory” approach sound right at that time, but it was shaped for robustness. That model leads to having multi-layers of controls and accountability.

Screenshot 2019-08-08 at 12.08.41

From 1977 to 1999, Dr Elliott Jacques developed the “Stratified Systems Theory of Requisite Organization” (above figure). The idea is to consider the enterprise as a system based on social interactions. In that stratified organizational model, the thesis was to increase engagement through reduction of bureaucracy and increasing level of accountability.

This is the background. In the 21st century, most of the bureaucracy can be easily automatised through low cost tools. Unfortunately, instead of improving the whole system, “Management” continued to dive deeper in a process oriented manner and adopted “Lean” techniques to reduce costs. That short term cost “killing” approach lead to outsource as much activities as possible to low wages countries.

Outsourcing in offshore countries has a couple of critical consequences:

    • The knowledge is no longer in the enterprise: even strategy has been outsourced to consulting firms.
    • Enterprises are now fully dependent to service providers.
    • Management are “managing” budgets and not value creation.
    • Internal workforce is undervalued as commodities
    • Back office activities (bureaucracy) are enforced

This is indeed a stereotype of 21st century work context. Let’s understand, what is happening in the 21st century.

The nature of work has changed

In his study “Wandel der Arbeitswelt”, Prof. Dr Peter Kruse tried, in collaboration with the MIT, to answer the question “How can people and computers be connected so that, collectively, they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?”.

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“The medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan, 1977).

Kruse explains:

“Internet and the connected world changed the nature of the existing system. The system architecture of communication has:

    • A lot of participants (agents or knots)
    • Highly spontaneous activities (activation)
    • Increasing connectivity

The consequence of that evolution is the probability of the emergence of non-linear effects.

This network is nurturing itself in exponential growth so that it cannot be predictive nor controlled with traditional management models. We are in a world moving from a linear system dynamic to a non-linear system dynamic. From the system architecture world came the concept of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). The new challenge is that you cannot predict everything and your organization becomes sensitive to “Black Swans”. The consequence is that you cannot predict the future any longer.”

An example is when you are asking from predictions. One expert might predict A, another  B and another C. More explicitly; the best predictions modelizations are coming from the Weather forecast. We all know how accurate that information is.

Once I asked a statistician from Eurostat how far in time can we predict. The answer was clear, “science fiction starts after two weeks.”

The context of work has changed. Kruse highlight three main consequences of the “Tsunami” of globalization and networking:

  1. “Exponentially growing Complexity changing the rules of the Economy and leadership in impact.
  2. The tremendous growth of democratization: the power has shifted from offer to demand.
  3. Dissolution of structural boundaries: core melting.”

In a growingly complex world, the traditional rational tools can’t help you analyze the situation. They will only be giving you a particular aspect of that situation. That aspect can be different from one device to another, from one methodology to another.

There is one way to tackle this chicken-egg problem, and that is by trusting your limbic system or in other words, trust your intuition. An example is in a questionnaire. When you are sending a poll, people are most likely answering your questions based on how they have been formulated. Its creator directly pollutes the value of that questionnaire. Dave Snowden tried to experiment the other way around with his SenseMaker program. You start the inquiry as a conversation with a “Clean Question” and then incrementally ask a second question based on the first answer. Like in the coaching session, the purpose is to collect micro-narratives or metaphors where your limbic system tries to illustrate your answer. The collection of all micro-narratives can then allow discovering emerging patterns leading to the “answers” you are expecting to figure out.

Peter Kruse is using a similar approach in his company, nextpractice GmbH, by collecting a massive amount of data through incremental questioning. That mass of data aggregated each year by a new one, let emerge customer behaviour of the Germans like forecasting a couple of years ago the replacement of bigs luxury cars by small premiums.

 In 2014, Kruse analyzed the results from his holistic questionnaire to 400 Top German Managers; a pattern emerged that management by objective has been joined by iterative  testing of agility. It means that agility has become a top-down decision. That agility is about the stimulation of networks.

85% of non-managing people are asking to change the paradigm of how the work is addressed in a system called enterprise. We are facing the end of Line Management to Self-managed networks.

Unfortunately, the enterprise structure isn’t designed for network effects.

Peter Niedschmidt has a more sharp view on the evolution of work. In the past working paradigms (you plan and handover for execution), the assumption is made that a single person has or gathers the complete knowledge and workers are the result of delegation.

Delegation means that workers are supporting that only person. A great example comes  from the “Surgeon team” Model, which were the purpose of the team is to promote an expert.

In Complexity, that model has become obsolete; one single person cannot have the full knowledge that is shared in the system through its agents.


Published by PierreENeis

Certified Agile Coach & Trainer, Organization Developer & Advisor

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