OK, I’ll admit it. I’m into subversion.
I’ve declared an interest in anarchy and anarchic systems. I’m absolutely devoted (yes, that strong) to the concept of self-managed systems and the subversion — there it is — of the hierarchy.
Let me start with a musical reference that came to me in a conversation with the absolute ball of insight and creativity, love and stimulation that is “Disco” Dave Wynn. A coach, a diviner of energy and a creator of patterns of wisdom.
The musical reference is the legend that is Bernard Edwards.
Here he is.
Bernard — along with perhaps the more famous Nile Rodgers — was the driving force behind Chic. An ensemble at the height of the disco/soul/R&B era of the mid-late 1970s and the 1980s.
His fame is as one of the most revered bass guitar players in history. His sound is on Chic, Sister Sledge, and Diana Ross recordings and thereby in samples and hip-hop tracks you might be familiar with. Rapper’s Delight — the definitive starting point of crossover hip-hop is Edwards’ bassline from Good Times.
Sadly Bernard died in 1996, but his legacy lives on in those basslines.
Bernard, though, was a subvertor.
He took the bass guitar from the founding platform of songs (along with drums and percussion) to being the prominent instrument. The bass guitar became something that you heard, the most.
This wasn’t the case until that point. Lead Guitar was, well, lead. Yes, you heard the drumbeat but that was the pulsating powering force. And the bass guitar was a complement to that. The vocals, brass, woodwind and strings — are all more prominent. Percussion (xylophone, bongos, triangle etc) all had their moments.
The bass guitar had more than moments in Edwards/Rodgers productions. And Bernard just happened to have one of the most gifted ways to play the thing.
So when you think of Chic songs, it’s the bass that comes out even with some sharp vocals. And if anything, Nile Rodgers's lead guitar was subverted into the support instrument.
OK. kudos to Bernard. But more than that, he was a shaper, a rebel, a challenger.
So subversion in the world of work is where I’ll move our thinking to.
What processes, structures, methodologies, rituals and more would YOU want to subvert?
I’ll have a go and start with the positioning of HR.
A support function. Enabling roles. Administration. Back to basics.
The people in any enterprise or venture ARE or become the organisation. We think it’s the value proposition, P&L, brand, sales, KPIs, strategy, and CEO + Board. Subvert that for a second. In favour of the people you have that come to you to do their work.
Sure you need all those material and intellectual things to make the business venture something that delivers value. But you need people to do the work even with the most advanced technology and machinery.
And HR’s gig is the people.
Sure, policies, practices and processes that come together to align their creativity, effort, endeavours, commitment and all manner of systems but they’re created and enacted upon to get the best from people.
Can you imagine if there were music executives who said to Bernard Edwards, “The bass guitar is like the HR of the musical world. It’s there in the background. Important but not that prominent and visible and the most heard aspect of the tune. So relegate it please, put it to the back. We know we need it but not that it’s the most heard. So, let’s look at record sales…”
And thereby forced his playing and production to be more “normal”. What you’d have done is lost everything that made Chic great.
By positioning monetary obsession, brand deification, executive reverence, KPI over-emphasis and strategy worship over people, you’re suppressing the force behind your enterprise. Just as you’d have suppressed the force and difference behind Chic.
If we obsess over your people it means we can give HR the bass guitar of Bernard Edwards.
So we need subversion when it comes to HR.
To the undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution that currently hides HR behind the scenes, ignores its potential to be a powerful force for sustainable and competitive advantage through the people in that enterprise.
And thereby the CEO might be the record executive, and in making sweet, sweet music, HR is the Bernard Edwards bass, and the Chic strings are your marketing. The vocalists are your customer agents. Nile Rodgers' lead guitar is your operations. Tony Thompson’s drums and the percussionists are your finance and facilities management functions.
Subversion. Hopefully coming to a recording studio/workplace near you soon. And sing it with me… “Aaaaah Freak Out!”