This is an edited version of a post that was originally published on 29 April 2015.
In April 2015, I attended a conference on the Future of Work, organised by the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne. My Masters project was around social network theory and human resources and I had been spending a lot of time thinking about what workplaces need, based on my experience working in a large bureaucracy. So this event was always going to be interesting for me. One of the most impactful sessions was Frédéric Laloux talking about his book Reinventing Organizations.
This was the first time I had come across him, though I did subsquently buy the book. The basic idea is that we are moving into a 5th age of organisational structure, with each age having its own features and accompanying metaphor.
The first age is tribal, like wolf-packs, where dog eats dog and the top dog is always watching his back.
The second age is agrarian, when structures and hierarchies evolve, and like the ranks of an army, everyone knows his place.
The third age is scientific/industrial, where like a machine we tinker and improve and the best engineered pieces of the machine are successful.
The fourth age is information, where values and culture have more of a place, people are empowered and the metaphor is of a (functional) family.
This all makes a lot of sense, especially when you think that these ages are not chronological – there are still organisations hanging around with tribal or agrarian mindsets.
But Laloux has discerned a fifth age, of organisations that are more akin to living organisms. Just as brain cells don’t need one CEO brain cell for them to work together, it is possible to work without hierachies, strategies, administrations, budgets and many of the other trappings of organisations as we know them and have known them for a while. He identifies three key characteristics for these organisations:
Self-management – complex situations break the organisational pyramid, rendering it ineffective. These organisations move away from what Laloux calls “the poison of traditional hierarchy” to find new mechanisms for decision-making and conflict resolution, where power and intelligence is distributed.
Wholeness – So many of us are not able to be ourselves at work, because of the emphasis on certain personality aspects – the rational, masculine elements are the ones that are valued. Us at work is just a tiny bit of us and we have to leave many important bits behind. Ultimately this ends up with us not liking who we are at work.
Evolutionary purpose – when the founder of one of the organisations Laloux studied wrote a book about what he did, he sent it to his competitors, so they could learn from what he had done. His purpose wasn’t to make money, it was to improve healthcare delivery in the Netherlands and so he was motivated to inspire and lead, not compete. Transparency and integrity are key features of these organisations.
As I sat and listened to this, I can tell you, it was almost uncomfortable. When I look back over my career and think about situations I have been in, what I have found difficult, and what led to me deciding to take a career break, it was exactly that: I had ended up feeling disempowered, partial and purposeless.
Laloux’s insights are so much more meaningful looking back at them since the start of the pandemic. For many knowledge workers, this has been a difficult time, but also one where they have been able to bring their whole selves to work – not least because work and home collided so spectacularly. As they are working more independently, they have been able to find their flow and do much more self-management.
Further ahead, I can imagine a future where we work as distributed organisations, using our professional networks to create one-off configurations to deliver a particular project, then reconvening in a different format with other people, allowing us to maintain a sense of purpose and wholeness, at least for some of the time. I look forward to that.