“Brave New Work” is a Love Letter to Organizations and the People who Make Them Possible

Brave New Work

Mini book read. 

Reinvention has deep roots in American culture. It's the land of pioneers, the place of the possible. If the current conversation has turned on itself, when we pan out with our lens, we can see the undercurrent clearly“can do” is in the fabric of the many who made this the land of opportunity.

Undercurrent is the name of Aaron Dignan's former charge—a company that evolved to help businesses develop innovation capabilities and pipelines. Aaron took his own advice and reinvented the work. Now CEO of The Ready, he and his team collaborate with businesses on their transformation journey.

The next phase of work is about being ready for change. It's relatively esy to do when companies are small—agility is a form of survival—but when companies grow, their own structures and processes get in the way. What makes them strong becomes a liability as context changes rapidly.

We need to be “brave,” says Aaron, and re-learn to adapt to ever changing circumstances. Autonomy is once again a hard-earned skill to navigate the hardened controls that make business efficient, if inflexible. These are the themes of Brave New Work, a long love letter to organizations and the people who want to breathe life into them.

The book itself is brave—rather than offering the usual prescription, it sets the stage to open our minds to a different way of thinking. Work isn't working, but we don't have to keep sabotaging ourselves.

We can reinvent work, and we should.

Three layers of value

When I read a book, I examine the ideas in three ways—as a learner, as an author, and as a practitioner. Here's my take on Brave New Work.

First as a learner—the book is very accessible. The book starts with a conversation about the future, an introduction of the big idea follows, then a discussion about the change and its impact. Aaron has chosen an interesting metaphor to help us understand how we need to cross to the other side and embrace transformation. Any European is very familiar with the roundabout designed to help keep cars moving at intersections, rather than stopping them. Results may vary, but they depend on the driver's choices, and not on the driver's compliance with a traffic light. 

Then as an author—structurally, I look at the information and references, do stories, examples and diagrams / charts help lighten the cognitive load? The questions and framework are useful tools to explain the vision and bring readers along at the same time. Work, evolution, complexity, power and change are principally energetic concepts. The book examines some of these concepts, rather than assuming them, as so many authors do, to jump to solutions.  How we get to where we're going is as important as the destination. 

Third as a practitioner—the grounding of concepts and the examples are useful to make sense of what's happening. It's simple to see how we got here, but it's important to figure out what we can do to improve our course. Permission is the most valuable application of the information. If we want to put this into practice, we want to know “it's within our control”. The two foundational mindsets, “people positive” and “complexity conscious,” are the unifying thread to keep us oriented as we examine each of 12 domains where we need to question and reinvent our approach most. Aaron describes the 12 domains as blocks in the Operating System (OS) Canvas, a framework that is the proving ground for the future of work.

Overall, the book is an easy read. But this doesn't mean it's easy to do. Part I is the homework, Part II is the practice.


Part III is the caution, which is super important to get. We often head into change as if it were easy, yet it's the most difficult thing we can tackle.

Everyone loves to talk about change, but nobody like to be the person to whom it happens, and even less so, the person who changes. It reminds me of a cartoon (above).

My highlights

“There's no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility is subtracted,” says educator, researcher, and policy advisor Pasl Sahlberg. It's not a word in Italian, either. The problem is that we do know better, yet we keep behaving as if we could control and predict the world.

In the introduction you will learn that we describe our current frustration about organized work with the same words William J. Donovan, director of the U.S. office of Strategic Services (OSS) used at the end of the Simple Sabotage Field Manual in 1944. He was teaching agents how to disrupt day-to-day business operations.

We succeeded. It seems that since as far back as 1910, everything has changed, except management. In a world that is always changing, where we're called to learn continuously, the organization's chart survives defeat. 

Every person in an organization fits in a box, we're spare parts with written rules about our duties and tasks. Yet, “the genius of the firm” happens “not inside people but between people,” says Aaron. The Ready's way of work reflects this insight.

Our way of working—our operating system—is built on distributed authority, consent, and agreements, so we don't have to rely on positional leaders.

Ecosystems evolve naturally to take care of the problems. Agility is a mindset, not a tool-set, says Aaron. We need to make our way back to it. Fredrick Taylor, who engineered the mother of industrial efficiency, figured out a way to make workers trade autonomy for efficiency.

Once he found out how much it cost, he dictated his terms—a modest percentage wage premium in exchange for doing exactly as I say. Since then, thinking and doing bacame two independent work functions—managers think, workers do. We're still operating under this assumption.

But bureaucracy ruined it for efficiency and has created its own brand of organizational debt. We're now optimizing our way into a cliff. Our way of working has tremendous inertia. The twelve domains contain each some thought starters, in action examples, and key questions for change:

Purpose—can be socially positive or socially destructive. After all, the key difference between a charity and a terrorist organization is intent.

Authority—the default assumption is that you don't have the right to do anything unless you are given permission.

Structure—to accomplish anything, projects often require a marathon of communication and coordination.

Strategy—is about where to play and how to win. But do we do things because they're the right thing to do?

Resources—perhaps no other process is so respected and reviled as the annual planning and budgeting process. Budgets can actually work against performance.

Innovation—every activity in the organization is a black box of potential energy. If every team isn't constantly learning in ways big and small, we're missing our chance to pursue our purpose with everything we've got.

Workflow—is how we divide and do the work, the path and process we use to create value.

Meetings—to meet or not to meet? Maybe we change the question to, how do we meet?

Information—until very recently in human history, all information was trapped in someone's head, or on a piece of paper. This has led to a scarcity mindset.

Membership—isn't binary, it's a social status, an identity, a living agreement. Not every employee feels the same level of loyalty, or inclusion, or participation. 

Mastery—think back on the time in your career when you grew the fastest. What were the conditions that drove that rapid development?

Compensation—lacking purpose and meaning in their work, many professionals view their career as nothing more than a series of stepping stones from one job title and pay package to another.

You can use the Canvas as a way to describe what happens in your organization, as a diagnostic tool, and as a path to imagine how things could be different.

How behavior spreads

In organizations, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Behavior spreads through culture. We imitate what others do.

Culture is not something we can control or design, it emerges from our behaviors. As much as we'd like to believe it, we can't change people. Anyone who's ever tried to manage their spouse or kids knows it all too well. 

Management consultant Margaret Wheatley studies organizational behavior. In 1996, she said (emphasis mine) :

“These days, a different ideal for organizations is surfacing. We want organizations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent-attributes found only in living systems.

The tension of our times is that we want our organizations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines.”

Only 26 percent of transformation efforts succeed, says McKinsey in a recent report. Front line employees actually think that number is more like 6 percent.

If we can't change people, what can we change? We can change how we change, starting with what we do every day. The power to make a difference is in the present, not in some future outcome we can hardly predict. We can start small, learn by doing, then spread what works.

On creating the future of work

It seems that all of a sudden, we've realized that humans, and not technology, are the point. Look at business titles, and you'll find the word “human” everywhere—human companies, even human marketing! But execution looks more like an excuse to learn more about my private affairs.

I think it started when Fast Company declared: work is personal circa 1997. Twelve years on and the current climate feels like a dystopian novel—recruiting is broken, the mighty shareholder rules, and “at will” has become “at whim”. The policies, daily actions, and organizational structures remain attached to what used to work.

Oxford economist Kate Raworth questions# whether growth is the solution to all our problems. “We need economies that make us thrive, whether they grow or not,” she says. Companies and economies expect demand and never ending growth.

We've morgaged our future in the constant effort to just keep up. But we're not thriving.

Can we get the future of work right? 

I hope you find Brave New Work as useful as I did.

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