A blog post of my talk at Recruitment Brainfood 24 hour Marathon 14–15 April
Recruitment Brainfood — A Self-Management Revolution
Like us all, I’ve been troubled and challenged by the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis. And saddened by our losses and lifted by the heroic efforts by ordinary and extraordinary people in health, social care, logistics, utilities, retail, protection, science, research and transport.
And like many, I’ve been civic, compliant and contemplative too. About what’s needed now and next. I’ve found sanctuary, comfort and energy in writing, talking and thinking about the things that are happening now and what we need to do in thinking and doing that leads to next.
I’ve defaulted to my usual thought patterns: what’s broken down? How will it be recovered (or more appealing to me), reinvented? How will we adjust and adapt our behaviours and rituals? What will be lost forever (for good and not so good); what will be similar (good and not so good) and what will be new (good and not so good?).
One thing I’ve held for a long long time is the advancement of human systems into less mechanistic and disproportionately unfair systems largely centred around self-management; self-determination and self-direction. Influenced by Dr Clare Graves work in the USA of the 1950s and the “The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory” which gave life to Spiral Dynamics and much of what is now called the Teal way of operating and being (brought to life through Frederic Laloux’s 2014 book Reinventing Organizations) and Jon Husband’s work on the Wirearchy.
This Gaping Void piece of art sums it for me
A brief history of self-management
About 12 years ago I discovered more self-managed systems at work and they hit me like a maturity for people in their work. Being a civil servant in digital projects and learning in Justice and then in HR & OD in the non-profit sector, got me interested in business and societal transformation through digital and more dispersed systems of operating.
As we’ve developed into more digitally-connected societies and the advent of social media, it played into my emerging beliefs that we were headed towards an advanced state of being where power was dispersed and leadership was shared (through this realisation I first discovered Agile, then Sociocracy which led to Dr Graves work; and that was further bolstered by Laloux’s book and the case studies he found from Isaac Getz’s Freedom Inc book).
I tried some of this approach with my team and they weren’t all quite ready for this abdication of me as a leader, and more self-directed ways of doing the work we had and wanted/needed to do. It was some important learning for me that we had conditions and rituals that we’d learned and applied and any — even perceived better — ways of operating weren’t always embraced and acted upon.
Move to my freelancing days, and self-management was a part of what I felt I could offer the world. But rather than positioning it as a niche thing with limited traction (it’s not always a solution that people feel drawn to) and instead, looked at OD and the emerging belief that purpose, mastery and autonomy were good things to have in a working world, to help people recalibrate their systems to deliver that.
So for a while, social technologies and the advent of this purpose-led and more autonomous ways of being and working became my thing as trojan mice to help create more self-management in companies without necessarily labelling it so.
I researched, developed and built my own versions of self-management systems to bring more people into decision-making; ideation; creativity; problem-solving and developing learning programmes.
I then fused this work with Agile. Yes, the development approach used in technology build. I took many of those rituals, merged them with OD and Change methodologies and made sure there was a good practical series of outcomes and value-creation. And that came into my book of 2017, Transformational HR, as a way HR could move from employee relations and order-taking L&D and restructuring administrators to business and people transformation agents.
Now, almost all of the work that comes my way is of this nature; Agile, purposeful, autonomous, creative, equalising, fulfilling.
And right now..?
This was ALL BC (Before Coronavirus). After some contemplation in these socially distant times and during the rescue (I called it Operation: Fightback) of my business where it went from 15 orders to 1 and now back up to 12, I had some deciding to do.
Is the ‘offer’ still relevant in a post-pandemic world?
And the good news for PTHR anyway, is I think self-management is now MORE relevant than it was before the lock-down afflicted world we’re now in.
It’s worth noting, that we’re seeing some amazing feats of agility and self-direction during the pandemic crisis.
Kinda proves my point this — albeit in a crisis of course.
But even without a crisis, and reflecting the shifting sands of how businesses, organisations, NGOs, education environments CAN be developed and delivered in a more inclusive, autonomous and fulfilling way has been part of my mission this past 8–10 years.
I have a growing list of companies I admire because the people in them chose to become more democratic, freedom-centred and autonomous in their culture and even if not full-scale self-managed, many of them are steadfast in their belief that management — the technology of bureaucracy and supervision of human endeavour — is a 19th and 20th-century version of work and is not about the much-fabled future of work. I agree with them.
And not in a form of nu-communism; but an egalitarian, participative and inclusive organisation.
I’ve even dabbled in understanding anarchic systems — UK former diplomat Carne Ross’s work culminating in his book: ‘The Leaderless Revolution’ and the study of militia in Syria; a city in Brazil; recovery in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, #MeToo and Extinction Rebellion being the latest to emerge as leaderless revolutions.
I understand how many people will feel this sort of response — a leaderless ‘uprising’ is often in response to a crisis and that when some ground is gained, there appears to be an urge to establish some form of a committee to shape things and give direction once the energy of the ‘fightback’ has moved into the consolidation and establishment phase.
This is where theories like sociocracy — and many of you might now have heard the term holacracy — come into being. Lead roles, circles, organised, fractal structures emerge to replace the reactive chaos of protest and counter-reaction.
And so many say then, that a self-managed state is a temporary state that eventually gives way to a different form of structured levels, proving that hierarchies — the dominant source of human control since tribal structures came into being — are a natural state of human beings to be a part of.
Whilst we may be fascinated in natural adaptive systems; and here again, I’ve looked into the states that the animal kingdom provides — murmurations of starlings; nests of ants and termites; schools of tuna fish — we are not so much a gathering of synchronized movements and activities; we are more complex therefore need the stability of a hierarchy.
And of course, this is where humans and their cognitive individuality and unpredictability come into play. We are some of the ‘swarm’ mentality and we are also much of the Kantian ethics or Descartes state of being ‘I think, therefore I am’ through the constructs of the mind and thought.
So in work, society and regional/national constructs, of course, it’s more complex and therefore unimaginable that we wouldn’t be ‘governed’ by someone in a hierarchical position. Albeit voted for by a democratic process — flawed or otherwise.
The story of Tangerine Bank in Canada has long been one for me to explain the difference between a chaotic, unproductive, duplicitous and disorganised environment and that of a DAO: a Decentralised, Autonomous Operation.
Peter Aceto was the CEO of Tangerine which emerged from a buy-out from ING Direct Canada. He set about creating the kind of institution that was more true to SPQR than FCA (or in Canada’s case Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI)). Senatus Populesque Romanus — for the senate and the people of Rome.
Through his leadership vision, he asked people to create a responsive, swarming approach to the work of the bank. In testing early banking apps; product launches and even the creation of the annual corporate report; he asked people to step away from their roles and join in a murmuration-like effort to serve. As part of this, he also instigated an election process for the people of the bank to choose their CEO.
One year into your term, you held a company-wide referendum on your leadership. You let your staff decide whether you should stay or go. Why would you ever do something like that?
You know, it’s usually a shareholder or a board that chooses the CEO, right? But CEO-ship is really about leadership, and the 900 or so employees we had at the time hadn’t chosen me. They were ‘given’ me. At some point, you need to be chosen as a leader, both for the people you’re leading — so they can feel like they made a choice — but also so you know that you are wanted and that people feel confident in you and will follow your guidance. So it wasn’t completely selfless; it was also a bit selfish. And I included that in my communication to our employees. I said, “Look, I’ve been here for a year. I’ve told you the way I think we need to be, and I’ve told you about the changes we need to make. You’re seeing it. Now the time has come for you to decide if you want me to be your leader. And if you do, then you’ve chosen me now, and I think that gives me more rights.”
Tangerine has the highest customer and deposit ratios of any Canadian bank due to their ‘bat phone’ mentality or smart swarming. Aceto himself spent time answering calls to understand more about what people at work faced and how the leadership could serve them and not simply the shareholding or statistical reporting processes.
An example of a leader setting out to create an alternative to the status quo, and create something different. Other examples of this are Dr King Jnr and even Gandhi with non-violent protest. Someone had to ‘set off’ an MO that empowered people as we default to structural, hierarchical followership — even following orders when transitioning and growing. Benevolent dictators are still dictators.
So my thoughts are not that we’ll see a complete erasing of structure or even hierarchy but this pandemic crisis reaction has already seen the futility of crafted board papers, committee meetings in the diary repetitively and the pointless hours in exec board meetings when shit needed to get done.
One of my clients is a council in the NW of England — Salford City Council to be precise.
As part of their COVID-19 response, they were able to mobilise and adjust to working from home with new kit deployed and arrangements made in under 48 hours because they had fostered a decentralised, autonomous approach to working. They developed an app within the same timeframe so people would have ‘at the push of a button’ contact with a Digital Eagle (work done in partnership with Barclays Bank’s programme for more internal corporate digital proficiency) to help with home working adjustments. And in under 48 hours from the arrival of the instruction from central set up their drive-through COVID-19 testing centre.
This is because, in 2018, Salford’s Director of Transformation and Assistant Director for HR & OD knew they needed more inclusive, dynamic and people-powered change to how Salford City Council operated to meet the challenges of a 21st-C civic office.
So they found me and I designed a programme with them to introduce Agile Squad working.
Iteratively, we skilled over 100 people in this approach and not just at a personal level. We created systems that brought choice, options and autonomy in despite some reservations about being ‘allowed’ to work this way; managers ‘giving up their resource’ and colleagues having to cover project-related absences. I’m sure there were more tensions, conversations and even heated exchanges about this, but nevertheless the #spiritofsalford mantra won over. An overarching view that we’re all in it together, and occasionally, we’d need to swarm to a problem, work together to solve it and that may mean leaving ‘conventional’ work aside for a while.
Within 6 months, this Council’s stuttering digital-citizen agenda was turbocharged to win Digital Council of the Year for 2018. Since then, a centre for vulnerable young adults was accelerated in both design and delivery through the inclusion of autonomous members of the workforce and young people themselves.
And now, in a crisis-afflicted world, the efforts, organisation and activation of this workforce are delivering results in the most uncertain and challenging of circumstances. Rapid, responsive and fully appreciative contributions from all over.
Because Salford City Council had the foresight to set out to create a Leaderless Revolution as a normal MO. Which is why I believe a future mode for us all to operate in post-pandemic, is not one of machine-like, hierarchical engineering but more of a complex adaptive system of interdependent and independent thoughts, words and deeds.
If we are to become more remote, dispersed, and distant we need to be more open, trusting and engaged in how we do our work. We need less leadership engagement in what to work on, and more that we direct ourselves and engage our leaders in what we’re working on and what we need from them. Reverse the pyramid.
To many, this increased accountability is uncomfortable: We are used to being subservient and that brings protection in ‘doing what we’re told’. It’s a different world now and may well be forever from this. We’re (mostly) acting like accountable citizens. Those who aren’t may react to peer-pressure as much to — or more than — government diktat and enforcement/punishment.
Self-management is an ideology, sure. But also a methodology. One I think we will need as the ineffectiveness of big government; big institutions and big bosses is proving to be ineffective when mass-mobilisation and self-determination are needed to not only fight this thing but reinvent on the other side of the pandemic.
Why more precisely? Many people — given a taste of a ‘decentralised’ way of working — no commute, more time at home with family and less pollution and cost — will wish to preserve all, or much, of this, therefore, more self-management, self-direction and autonomous ways of working will facilitate this.
The illusion of control by being present is being shattered by forced distance. Many will question the effectiveness of this and lobby for a reduction in ‘being there’ as the only way to work.
New problems, challenges and issues are emerging, and the input, innovation and inclusion of others may need the form of self-direction in order to ‘do a Salford’ and respond, reinvent and roll-out new ways of working and serving others.
Co-located efficiencies and serendipity have often been quoted as providing stable, productive and more socialised ways of working. Yet self-management doesn’t mean withdrawal or isolation, it means more choice, options and accountability that brings a new way of non-forced compliance, active participation and more kinship amongst people. New ways will need to be found to spark ideas, create social bonds and have more agency over the work and lives.
We should therefore only mandate one thing: we will design, test and deploy self-management.
I experienced a simulation of a Citizen’s Assembly in November of last year — a sense that democracy has become the domain of hierarchical control and not true inclusion and randomised inclusion. We see the future in this as a political vehicle of self-managed decision making within a participative framework that includes experts and is real people-powered change.
Just as Dr King Jnr and Gandhi advocated non-violent communication we can issue that one decree that will bring us all together — self-management. And as a leader, holding that space, providing the inspiration, energy and fortitude to succeed at that, will bring about a reinvention of what we know work, and therefore life, to be. It won’t be easy, it won’t be natural but we can unlearn what got us here; in order to relearn what we’ve always been. A Triple-A rated being in a human operating system: Autonomous; Agile; Activists.
My urges and takeaways here?
- Look to yourselves — are you ready for more autonomy, agility and activism? It starts with you.
- Look for others — who else might be feeling they need a different way of being that includes more self-direction?
- Look at your systems — what is already pretty autonomous, agile and active? Start there if you want to explore and do more self-management practices.
- Look into the narratives — there’s a lot of self-management already established and learn from it, be inspired by it and create your own version of it (if you’re so inspired).
Further Reading: (note not all are self-management related but are all about inclusion, agility and active participation).
Freedom Inc — Isaac Getz
Reinventing Organizations — Frederic Laloux
Eco-Autonomous Organizations — Natty Gur
The Leaderless Revolution — Carne Ross
The Seventh Sense — Joshua Cooper Ramo
The Democratic Organization — Russell Ackoff
The Evolutionary Imperative for Business — Dawna Jones
Going Horizontal — Samantha Slade
Teeming — Tamsin Wooley-Barker
Smart Swarm — Peter Miller
The Responsive Leader and Teal Dots in an Orange World — Erik Korsvik Ostergaard
Responsive — Robin Zander
The Human Workplace — Andy Swann
Beyond Empowerment — Doug Kirkpatrick
Why We Work — Barry Schwartz
Organizational Innovation by Integrating Simplification (Learning from Buurtzorg Nederland)- Sharda S. Nandram
The Open Organization — Jim Whitehurst
The Future of Management — Gary Hamel and Bill Breen
11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era — Nilofer Merchant
Everybody Matters — Bob Chapman
Joy Inc. — Richard Sheridan
Brave New Work — Aaron Dignan
Corporate Rebels — Joost Minaar and Pim de Morree
Reinventing Management — Julian Birkinshaw
The Challenger Spirit — Khurshed Dehnugara, Claire Genkai Breeze
The Evolved Executive — Heather Hanson Wickman
What Matters Now — Gary Hamel