By Lisa White.
It was a hazy Saturday morning in June when I shuffled into the Central Hotel in Dublin to learn Improv from Neil Curran. The previous year for me had been filled with tumult and trauma and crises. My life seemingly crumbling, my confidence shot and my business on shaky ground. A room full of strangers, some actors, others brimming with personality. What was I doing here? But 24 hours was all it took to see the light. The vivid revelation of actually trusting another human being, of actually listening and pinpointing their contribution, and simply, building on it. Thirty odd years had not taught me this simple, human reciprocity.
The world is a more complex system than any of us can imagine. Suspicion is the correct reaction to anyone who claims to know how it works. The total of human knowledge is combined in the minds and lives of billions across the planet. If you think YOU know, then you are simply too arrogant to find out.
Success, even survival, in this increasingly complex system will require much more than skill, competency and hard work - it will require us all to navigate an ever-evolving network. This shouldn’t be so difficult for our fair species. In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari provides ample evidence that Homo sapiens dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We have lived in networks for millennia. But stasis has since set in. Despite the massive connectability provided by radio technology, the internet, smartphones and digital tools, we now live in a world of absolute specialization and practical apathy. Nowhere is this more true than within the thermodynamics of our organisations. Our banks, our schools, our healthcare systems, our corporations and our governments are all dogged by inefficiency, ineffectiveness and inertia. And the more we hire strong leaders and skilled managers to rain down the “right way” to operate, the more we implement leading technologies and digital strategies, the more we seem to be stuck in reverse. Customers and employees across myriad industries are wildly disengaged, while economies tank.
But it doesn’t have to be so hopeless. The networked, adaptable, collaborative model for organisations is set to reinvent our world. Companies like Buurtzorg, Patagonia, ESBZ and FAVI, spanning sectors, operating without strict hierarchy, without autocratic leaders and without detailed plans - these are the systems within which human beings can share, engage, explore, collaborate and thrive; these are the organisations that will redefine our markets, our education and our political systems. It will be these systems that flourish, grow and provide value long into the future. Goodbye Taylorism, hello collaboration.
Such systems are based on a simple maxim - if you treat someone with suspicion, if you control them, if you police them - they will abdicate responsibility, but if you trust someone, they will cherish and honour this trust. The premise is not always true - but it is far truer than the opposite! And a far more positive manner in which to engage with the world and our fellow human beings.
On the Improv stage, I have two choices. I could try to control things, drive my colleague, hog the floor, contradict when she gets it wrong. The result? A dead scene with an early, but longed-for ending! But if I trust, and listen, and engage and embrace, then we go somewhere. There is always a place to go together - it will not look like I imagined or like she imagined - it will be better.
This is the way the networked organisation operates. Frederic Laloux, in his tome Reinventing Organizations, paints a much cleaner picture of this model. He speaks of three principles embraced by these “Teal” organisations of the future: evolutionary purpose, wholeness and self-management. It’s a clearer definition than I can muster, and it nicely illustrates that trust must be combined with transparency, exposure, even vulnerability. The sharing economy is our first instantiation of this - a model based on trust. I trust you to rent me a quality room, or car, or office, and you trust me to treat it with respect, and the truth will be published in a review in the end anyway.
Laloux’s model however, is also potentially limiting. His conclusions too clear, too final. He claims, for example, that organisations cannot transform to Teal if their leaders do not explicitly agree with the concepts. Perhaps this is a question of semantics, but I disagree. Laloux himself needs to look across disciplines. The book In Over Our Heads by Robert Kegan provides many clues to supporting the transition of individuals from stage 3 to stages 4 and 5 of adult psychological development. And engineers applying the principles of the Agile manifesto have been operating in non-hierarchical environments for decades, despite the hierarchy of their customers or business sponsors. Why couldn’t such principles be applied to incrementally evolve the perspectives of leaders, managers and team members alike?
For me, the point will eternally be that the more we learn, the less we know. The network always wins, but to adapt to it we must embrace its principles - Trust, Transparency and Improvisation.