Stowe Boyd’s manifesto and The People’s Front

The People's Front

Stowe Boyd recently published "A Manifesto For A Third Way Of Work" (although the title will change). The manifesto forms the basis of the book Stowe plans to write throughout 2014, crystallizing the perspectives and insight he has forged and assembled over the years. And if you've read Attenzi – a social business story then you'll know Stowe and I think alike on many matters.

[Update 20th March 2014: the title changed to A Manifesto For A New Way of Work.]

Here are the major theses, and I have identified with an asterisk the four I have chosen to argue below.

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Dissensus (versus Consensus)

— active and directed dissent is a better way to counter the cognitive biases of groups and individuals, and to sidestep groupthink; essential to increased innovation and creativity truly driving business

Cooperative (versus Collaborative)

— sidesteps the politics and collectivism of consensus-based decision-making, and shifts to looser, laissez-faire cooperative work patterns

Creativity (versus Tradition)

— new solutions to problems are needed, and traditional approaches may not only be broken but dangerous

Autonomy (versus Heteronomy)

— paradoxically, as we come into a time when we acknowledge that we are more connected to each other than ever before, a great degree of autonomy will become the norm; old demands to subordinate all personal interests to those of the collective will be displaced by a personal re-engagement in our own work and a commitment to a deeper work culture that transcends any one company’s corporate culture

(Hyper)democracy (versus Oligarchy) *

— today’s management theory and organizational structure is basically a holdover from the earliest days of the industrial age, a time prior to democracy, when monarchies ruled; businesses today are oligarchies, where the few lead the many; in recent decades, there has been a transition from coercive controls to more consensual ones, but if we are to move fast enough to compete in the new economy we will have to more to a hyper lean, agile, democratic form factor for work

Fast-and-loose (versus Slow-and-tight)

— companies need to become much looser (higher degrees of autonomy and voluntary association into working teams) in order to run faster, increase innovation, and provide the sort of environment that top performers best operate in

Laissez-faire (versus Entrepreneurial) *

— the growing uncertainties in complex, interconnected, global economy means that predicting the future and judging risks has become extremely difficult if not impossible; therefore, the notion of organizing any reasonably sized company around a single ‘official future’ is broken; we’ll need to adopt a laissez-faire operating system for business, where many experiments based on different hypotheses can run in parallel, instead of lining up all the troops and making them march to a single unified strategic plan

Hyperlean (versus Waterfall)

— all business operations will transition away from top-down, long-term, waterfall-style models to a bottom-up, short-term, hyper lean approach; those closest to the problem will work on its solution, and divvy up the pieces in a way that makes sense to them, and refactor as needed

Small-and-Simple (versus Large-and-Complex) *

— the technological advances that will disrupt markets and patterns of business in the future will increasingly be small-and-simple, but paradoxically, may force the re-evaluation of everything (like file sync-and-share applications, which are destabilizing the enterprise software market)

Open and Public (versus Closed and Private)

— the number one factor today in work happiness is the transparency of management practices, and that happiness is likewise reflected in higher engagement at work

Emergent Strategy (versus Deliberate Strategy) *

—  the nature of strategy changes in a time of great change, when the future is difficult to foresee; the role of leadership changes with it, as well; instead of concocting a strategic vision and pushing it out to the organization through cultural and managerial channels (the deliberate style of strategy) leadership must shift to distributed, action-based strategic learning about what is actually happening in the market: emergent strategy; this, as Henry Mintzberg observed, does not mean chaos, but unintended order.

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This is a serious list of theses with deep and wide ramifications. When presented so baldly, you can see why this vista may be perceived as nothing less than fearsome. While I might champion rapid evolution tapping extant business performance management process (in this guest post to briansolis.com for example), Stowe plants his standard steadfastly for revolution. Only time will tell which is dominant. I'm guessing evolution that may be reported through the compressed lens of historic reflection as revolution.

Of course there are differences of opinion about what should play out and how exactly it might play out. We have various 'camps' with names such as Social Business, Responsive Organization, Future Work, Enterprise 2.0 and Industry 4.0, and most recently Stowe's Chautauqua [update 20th March 2014: now rechristened Future of Work]. (Industry 4.0 may be the outlier here with its dominant focus on the machines rather than the humans.)

And perhaps 'camps' is too emotive a word. We should continually remind ourselves that, whichever camp and theses take your fancy, that which binds us far exceeds that separating us. I'm reminded of The People's Front of Judea, the sketch in the film Life of Brian where the Monty Python crew poke fun at groups that are indistinguishable to outsiders, yet obsess with nuance internally. Nevertheless, in order for us to come together to develop and present a compelling vision (an irony in the context of this manifesto?) to the vast majority who don't yet appreciate this stuff, we should also consider Bertrand Russell's 8th commandment for living in a healthy democracy:

Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

(Hyper)democracy (versus Oligarchy)

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

So said Winston Churchill. (A lesser known quote of his: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.")

In the absence of any better way to run a country with the utmost respect for its peoples, I'm a democrat. But I'm less sure how Stowe envisages democracy improving organizational success. If we're talking about some kind of crowd-sourced decision-making (and he refers to 'one person, one vote' here), then we should be alert to the caveats to the wisdom of the crowd, including the types of problem for which the crowd is best suited and the diversity prediction theorem.

According to James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds:

Crowds are best when there's a right answer to a problem or a question.

I think then we need to make sure that this interpretation of "hyper democracy", if correct, does not contradict other theses, not least the inference that there is rarely a "right answer".

Scott E. Page is an American social scientist, a Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan. His diversity prediction theorem asserts that when the diversity of a group is large, the error of the crowd is small. And therefore, that when the diversity of a group is small, the error of the crowd is large.

Life of Brian

Brian: Please, please, please listen! I've got one or two things to say.

The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!

Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!

Brian: You're all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

Man in crowd: I'm not...

The Crowd: Shush!

Finland is synonymous with social democracy, and its business poster child is (or perhaps was until recent times) Nokia. I understand that Nokia's culture was largely informed by its home country. And yet, by dint of geography, everyone making the commute each day to Nokia HQ came from the same geography and culture, and it's said that they didn't have an ear to what was happening on the West Coast (How Nokia Fell From Grace, Businessweek, 15 Sept 2010). Stowe may rightly argue that this particular case study supports his thesis for dissensus over consensus, and perhaps the two theses are linked.

The "hyper democracy" thesis should therefore be qualified in two regards. The intended scope of the democratic process – does everyone "vote" on everything? – and the precondition to secure and sustain appropriate diversity.

And I wonder then if the spirit of this thesis isn't captured sufficiently by the one promoting autonomy? Does not the freedom of autonomy come with the responsibility to yourself and those around you to decide how best to employ one's time, skills and knowledge? Perhaps this decision is the "vote", in which case we should be careful not to invoke the word democracy without dispelling the general appreciation for its typical mechanics today.

Laissez-faire (versus Entrepreneurial)

Steve Jobs, James Dyson and Elon Musk spring to my mind when thinking of visionary entrepreneurs, but what is this vision thing exactly? The phrase "mission and vision" is bandied around, and the two words are too frequently blurred. The organization's mission explains the reason it exists, and its vision paints what it aspires to be.

Jobs, Dyson and Musk were discontent with the status quo of personal computing, the entertainment industry, domestic appliances / white goods, payment systems and transport. They could literally see a different future, and they dragged that future into being.

Just as important, people love visionary leaders. They are excited to be a part of something visionary. I'm no sociologist, but I'm not sure this atavistic trait can be junked.

Polemically, one might label Stowe's "laissez-faire" thesis haphazard, which my dictionary defines as lacking any obvious principle of organization. I agree with his assertion that an organization may see fit to attenuate its risk profile by having several hares running, but I don't see how that obviates the obvious power of entrepreneurial vision.

A further point. Mintzberg and Waters (1985) identified eight types of strategy, of which they labeled one entrepreneurial. This thesis might then overlap considerably with the one about emergent strategy, below.

Small-and-Simple (versus Large-and-Complex)

I wrote a post a few weeks back on the topic of complexity that I think sets the scene for my argument with this thesis and the emergent strategy thesis below: "You have to deal with both complication and complexity, so you’d better know the difference."

The perception of the small-and-simple often forms from the large-and-complex.

Take Stowe's example of Dropbox, a fabulous service I've enjoyed since its earliest days. It's one of those services that just works, requires little effort, and yet serves such a critical role in my digital life that I really would not want to be without it. Once anyone is in the vibe of modern times and savvy with personal computing and the Web, Dropbox appears simple.

But consider explaining it to someone who has been asleep forty years. I mean, where would you start? It would not be a simple explanation, and it would be perceived as anything but small-and-simple.

Rather than a thesis based on small and simple technological advances, I'd rather recognise that we have, for the first time in our history, the fabulous opportunity to work with the unavoidably complex, as I explain further in my next argument.

Emergent Strategy (versus Deliberate Strategy)

Strategy is perhaps one of the most over-used and misappropriated words in business. (Stowe does neither.) While there are competing definitions, I generally defer to Michael Porter's:

selecting the set of activities in which an organization will excel to create a sustainable difference in the marketplace, and thereby creating sustained value for its shareholders.

Saying that, I think in terms of all stakeholders rather than just shareholders in the narrowest sense (Attenzi chapters 58 and 60), but that's a tangent to the focus here.

Stowe asserts that:

the new way of work runs more like a forest or a city than a machine. We need to learn by imitating rich ecosystems, where the appearance of chaos yields to emergent order, and reject order imposed by fiat.

In the 2nd edition of Attenzi and during the closing keynote at the 3M ThinkTANK conference in September I ask:

Do you help all the individuals associated with your organization build worthwhile relationships with each other and others, coalescing by need and desire, knowledge and capability and shared values, to create shared value?

And I point out that the very nature of the question demands self-organization, a network more like a city than a traditional business. So once again, I might be contrasting The People's Front of Judea with The Judean People's Front, but perhaps there is a detail worth exploring...

A forest (and a city without a strong mayoral team) has no self-direction. What will be, will be. But that's obviously not good enough for our human needs and aspirations. Moreover, complexity is a system with a seemingly random mix of order and disorder (chaos). As Stowe notes, chaos yields to emergent order, but emergent order also yields to chaos.

cellular automaton

We cannot simplify complexity (as opposed to complication), for it is a natural product, but we can learn to navigate it more simply. Until now, we have effectively had to ignore it because we simply did not have the information technologies and capacity for data collection. Rather, we had to rely on management rules-of-thumb, maxims that endured when considered to be right more often than wrong. Maxims may well have sufficed when that's all the competition had too.

Rather than "imitating" nature, as Stowe proposes, which effectively means modelling man-made systems on natural systems, we should undoubtedly be informed by nature but be sure not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Porter and Henry Mintzberg (to whom Stowe refers above) are attributed with standing for deliberate strategy and emergent strategy respectively. In practice, I find that no leader is foolish enough to set a five-year plan and let it play out without close observation and adaption. In the words of the Balanced Scorecard community, there is single-loop learning (are we pursuing the right tactics in the right way to execute the strategy?) and double-loop learning (does the strategy remain appropriate?) In other words, we set a direction based on our understanding of our needs and aspirations today, and the current environment and context, and set off knowing that our journey will demand both flexibility (adapting to the single-loop, operational) and agility (adapting to the double-loop, strategic), and likely as sooner as later.

In my story, the Attenzi team moved such capability beyond the usual regard for performance management towards real-time sensory feedback in an organization-as-organism / business-as-biology metaphor.

In actual fact, Porter and Mintzberg are meeting somewhere in the middle of the polarized positions they are frequently said to occupy. Indeed, the 1985 paper above points out that we're not talking "either / or" here, but rather a continuum with little happening at either extreme. I guess then the question here is: how is the appropriate position on that continuum best established at any given time?

I'm intrigued by the facility to navigate complexity in the organizational context and work by the likes of Professors Eve Mitleton-Kelly and Julian Rosenhead at the London School of Economics, the Complexity Centre at the University of Oxford, and the Plexus Institute. This paper by Professor Neil Johnson, then of Oxford University, and David M.D. Smith, for example, argues that we might undertake short-term predictions of the future evolution of complex adaptive systems and, effectively, nudge them away from undesirable states. Very interesting indeed.

Conclusion

Without meaning to be the least bit arrogant (for we all have our own unique talents, experiences and insights), the typical leader or manager ensconced in his or her closed, hierarchical, oligarchical, slow and tight niche, will find it difficult to tell Stowe and me apart (excepting accents and his good looks) even after a day-long workshop.

Personally, I think the nuances here are worth exploring in preparation for practice, but I fear such debate will play out on blogs and in academic papers long before it hits the typical boardroom. Which is a real shame, because we're talking about some serious competitive advantage for the early adopters, realizing significant mutual value of both fiscal and non-fiscal kinds for everyone involved.

In short, this area is crying out for some entrepreneurial visionaries!

Life of Brian

Reg: If you want to join the People's Front of Judea, you have to really hate the Romans.

Brian: I do!

Reg: Oh yeah, how much?

Brian: A lot!

Reg: Right, you're in.