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A Better Way of Doing Business

November 10, 2015

Much of today’s organisational management mind-set (whether corporate, non-profit, government institution or start-up) is rooted in a flawed logic about how the world works.

‘We have been, and still are, in the grips of a flawed view of reality – a flawed paradigm, a flawed worldview – and it pervades our culture putting us on a biological collision course with collapse’ – Ray Anderson, once voted America’s most admired CEO.

Central to this flawed logic is a control-based, oppositional-mindset with a tendency to polarize and reduce life’s tensions into separations: organism separate from environment, God separate from Creation, us separate from them, yin separate from yang, mind separate from matter, rational analytical thought separate from embodied and intuitive ways of knowing.

‘We have created a sufficiently strong propensity not only to make divisions in knowledge where there are none in Nature, and then to impose the divisions on Nature, making the reality thus comfortable to the idea, but to go further, and to convert the generalisations made from observation into positive entities, permitting for the future these artificial creations to tyrannise over the understanding.’  Henry Maudsley

This ‘logic of separation’ has profound implications for Western philosophic and socio-economic systems culminating in the ‘mind-divorced-from-matter’ materialism of the Age of Reason still pervading our worldview today. The origins of Western philosophy, however, drew from a deeper wisdom that transcended this ‘logic of separation’ – for instance, Pythagoras, Parmenides and Plato sought to attune with the ‘wisdom of Sophia’ permeating throughout Nature, a gnosis of life’s tensions transcending the shallow ego-mind’s reductive tendency to polarize and separate.

nature sustainability

And yet, over time, due to various contributing factors, our culture has become mired in this ‘logic of separation’. Our ways of knowing and attending to life have been acculturated at deep and partly unconscious levels, infecting how we relate with our own sense of self, each other and the world around us.

By example, there is a deeply held philosophical believe amongst the well-educated in the West that decision-making ought to be separated from the undertaking of the work itself: strategic thinking and layers of management-control are separate from labour, and labour itself is separated and reduced into departmental ‘economies of scale’ for normalisation, management and control. This separation is espoused by the scientific management thinking of Taylorism, industrial and post-industrial productization, and the quantification-obsessed ethos of management-by-numbers. It is a reductionist, mechanistic logic: hallmarks of the Age of Reason.

Today we find all too many organisations caught up in a top-down, hierarchic, KPI-obsessed, silo’ed, control-based mentality. While it is assumed that such an approach to work enhances efficiencies and effectiveness, the reality is that it undermines and erodes the greatness of our workplaces, turning them into places of drudgery, stress, political infighting and ineffective bureaucracies.

Instead of focusing on our sense of purpose and quality of value-creation for stakeholders hand-in-hand with the undertaking of enjoyable enriching productive work, attention is taken-up with ‘people management’, ‘activity management’, ‘production management’, ‘budget control’, techniques aimed at managing units and numbers. The inter-relational, holistic and humane spirit of work is reduced into little more than reporting line items.

As organisational specialist John Seddon notes:

‘command-and-control management has created service organisations that are full of waste, offer poor service, depress the morale of those who work in them and are beset with management functions that not only do not contribute to improving the work, but actually make it worse. The management principles that have guided the development of these organisations are logical – but it’s the wrong logic.

Peter Senge notes that the biggest challenge facing leaders and managers today is this transformation from linear, mechanistic, control-based logic to systemic, organic, emergent, embodied ways of operating and organizing where the organization is understood as a flourishing living being rather than a mechanistic machine.

1 RIP business

The good news is, we are on the cusp of a radical sea-change in how we perceive our ways of operating and organizing:

Economies of scale                                         Economies of flow

Linear thinking                                                 Systemic thinking & being

Silo’ed units of production                         Systems of inter-relations

Measurement-focused                                 Purpose-focused

Dominator-model                                           Partnership-model

Machine-mentality                                         Living organization

‘The organisation of the future will be an embodiment of community based on shared purpose calling on the higher aspirations of people.’ – Dee Hock, founder of VISA

Attempting to transform our ways of operating and organising towards humane, sustainable businesses without addressing this flawed mind-set is like applying the preverbal Band-Aid to a systemic illness. Isolated initiatives such as ‘wellbeing at work’, ‘mindfulness in the workplace’, ‘talent management’, ‘open innovation’, ‘closed loop economics’ or ‘corporate responsibility’ are useful in themselves and can have knock-on catalytic affects, yet if they leave the underlying culture and ethos of the organisation unchecked they ultimately fail to deliver transformative change towards flourishing, resilient firms of the future.

Image of 7 shifts to business

We need to deal with root causes as well as the detrimental downstream effects this logic creates: unsustainable operations, mental health issues, lack of moral, low levels of creativity and performance, inflexibility in times of volatility, etc.

Firm of the Past                                                                                                Firm of the Future

Top-down hierarchy                                                                       Locally-attuned

Control ethos                                                                                    Learning ethos

Remote management by numbers                                          Distributed decision-making

Bureaucratic                                                                                      Participatory, self-organizing

Short-term maximization for shareholders                         Value-creation for stakeholders

Competition-orientated                                                                              Collaboration and co-creativity

Private ownership and control                                                  Open-source, open-innovation

Self-preservation/maximization                                                              In service of something greater

Exploitation and enslavement                                                  Empathy and empowerment

To change management thinking one cannot just change the roles and measures (although that helps). To truly change our ways of organizing and operating we need to change our philosophy, our ways of thinking and knowing, our perception of how the world works and our sense of place and purpose within this deeply wise world.  No small feat.

Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves these questions:

Why are we here doing what we are doing?

What are we in business for – what is the real underlying purpose?

What value are we delivering to society? What about to the wider fabric of life?

Do we wish our activities to help or hinder life?

What do we deeply love doing?

How can our work resonate more strongly with this love and a deeper sense of purpose?

There are many examples of organisations varying in size and sector who are actively challenging yesterday’s logic while exploring new ways of operating and organizing: Semco, Sounds True, Natura, Patagonia, Weleda and Interface to name a few.

There is a metamorphosis in our midst. As with the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly, the initial stages of transformation are resisted by the incumbent dominant paradigm, yet, as more ‘imaginal cells’ of the ‘new way’ form into clusters, a tipping point is reached where wider understanding and acceptance of these transformative ways operating and organizing systemically form.

We live in a volatile time of great potential. The question is, do we wish to be a part of the emerging future or hold-on fearfully to old ways of working? Time to transform: it’s a time to let go of old ways and allow the new to emerge; leading with courage beyond fear.

To explore ‘the new paradigm’ further, join the Face Book community here

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