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Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher and scientist, proclaimed in a treatise written in 350 BC that women have fewer teeth than men. Today we know this is nonsense. But for almost 2,000 years, it was accepted wisdom in the Western World. Then one day, someone had the most revolutionary of ideas: let’s count!
The scientific method―formulating a hypothesis and then testing it―is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we find it hard to conceive that intelligent people would blindly trust authority and not put assumptions to the test. We could be forgiven for thinking that, perhaps, people simply weren’t that smart back then! But before we judge them too harshly, let’s ask ourselves: could future generations be similarly amused about us? Could we, too, be prisoners of a simplistic way of understanding the world?
There is reason to believe we might be. As an example, let me ask you a simple question: How many brains does a human being have? I imagine your answer is “one” (or, if you suspected a trick question, it might be “two,” the often-referred-to right and left brains). Our current knowledge is that we have three: there is of course the massive brain in our head; then there is a small brain in our heart, and another in our gut. The last two are comparatively much smaller , but they are fully autonomous nervous systems nevertheless.
Here is where it gets interesting: The brain in the heart and the one in the gut were discovered only recently, even though from a technological point of view, they could have been identified long ago. All it takes to see them is a corpse, a knife, and a basic microscope. Actually, the brain in the gut was discovered long ago, in the 1860s, by a German doctor named Auerbach. His discovery was further refined by two English colleagues, Bayliss and Starling. And then, something extraordinary happened. Medical circles somehow forgot about the brain in the gut. For a century, they completely lost sight of it! It was rediscovered only in the late 1990s by Michael Gerson, an American neuroscientist, along with others.
How could medical circles forget the existence of a brain? I believe it has to do with the belief system of our times: in a hierarchical worldview, there can be only one brain in command, just as there must be a single boss at the head of every organization. Although popular parlance has long used the terminology of “knowing in our hearts” and “knowing in our gut,” having three autonomous brains working side by side can’t be possible if we believe the world needs clear hierarchies to function. It might be no coincidence that we discovered (or rediscovered) the other two brains at the same time as the Internet became a dominant force in our lives. The age of the Internet has precipitated a new worldview―one that can contemplate the possibility of distributed intelligence instead of top-down hierarchy. With that worldview, we can accommodate the idea that we have more than one brain and that they can work together in shared intelligence.
We can’t quite understand how people in the Middle Ages believed Aristotle’s claim that women had fewer teeth than men. And yet, it seems we can be prisoners of our thoughts just as much as they were. Modern scientists neglected to look carefully through the microscope because “there can only be one brain,” rather like Galileo’s contemporaries refused to look through the telescope because it was unthinkable that our God-formed planet would be anything other than the center of the universe.
The limits of our current organizational models
My interest is in organizations and collaboration, not medicine or astronomy. But the conceptual question is the same: could it be that our current worldview limits the way we think about organizations? Could we invent a more powerful, more soulful, more meaningful way to work together, if only we change our belief system?
In many ways, this is a strange and almost ungrateful question to ask. For thousands and thousands of years, people have lived on the brink of famine and in fear of plagues, always at the mercy of a drought or a simple flu. Then suddenly, almost out of nowhere, modernity has brought us unprecedented wealth and life expectancy in the last two centuries. And all this extraordinary progress has come not from individuals acting alone, but from people collaborating in organizations:
And yet, many people sense that the current way we run organizations has been stretched to its limits. We are increasingly disillusioned by organizational life. For people who toil away at the bottom of the pyramids, surveys consistently report that work is more often than not dread and drudgery, not passion or purpose. That the Dilbert cartoons could become cultural icons says much about the extent to which organizations can make work miserable and pointless.
And it’s not only at the bottom of the pyramid. There is a dirty secret I have discovered in the fifteen years I have spent consulting and coaching organizational leaders: life at the top of the pyramids isn’t much more fulfilling. Behind the façade and the bravado, the lives of powerful corporate leaders are ones of quiet suffering too. Their frantic activity is often a poor cover up for a deep inner sense of emptiness. The power games, the politics, and the infighting end up taking their toll on everybody. At both the top and bottom, organizations are more often than not playfields for unfulfilling pursuits of our egos, inhospitable to the deeper yearnings of our souls.
This book isn’t a rant about large corporations gone mad with greed. People who work in government agencies or nonprofits are rarely more exuberant about their workplaces. Even professions of calling aren’t immune to organizational disillusionment. Teachers, doctors, and nurses are leaving their field of vocation in droves. Our schools, unfortunately, are for the most part soulless machines where students and teachers simply go through the motions. We have turned hospitals into cold, bureaucratic institutions that dispossess doctors and nurses of their capacity to care from the heart.
The questions that triggered the research for this book
The way we try to deal with organizations’ current problems often seems to make things worse, not better. Most organizations have gone through many rounds of change programs, mergers, centralizations and decentralizations, new IT systems, new mission statements, new scorecards, or new incentive systems. It feels like we have stretched the current way we run organizations to its limits, and these traditional recipes often seem part of the problem, not the solution.
We yearn for more, for radically better ways to be in organizations. But is that genuinely possible, or mere wishful thinking? If it turns out that it is possible to create organizations that draw out more of our human potential, then what do such organizations look like? How do we bring them to life? These are the questions at the heart of this book.
To me, these are not merely academic but very practical questions. An increasing number of us yearn to create soulful organizations, if only we knew how. Many of us don’t need convincing that new types of companies, schools, and hospitals are called for. What we need is faith that it can be done and answers to some very concrete questions. The hierarchical pyramid feels outdated, but what other structure could replace it? How about decision-making? Everybody should make meaningful decisions, not just a few higher-ups, but isn’t that just a recipe for chaos? How about promotions and salary increases? Can we find ways to handle such matters without bringing politics to the table? How can we have meetings that are productive and uplifting, where we speak from our hearts and not from our egos? How can we make purpose central to everything we do, and avoid the cynicism that lofty-sounding mission statements often inspire? What we need is not merely some grand vision of a new type of organization. We need concrete answers to dozens of practical questions like these.
Taking this practical perspective does not preclude us from also considering much larger societal and environmental implications. Our way of conducting business has outgrown our planet. Our organizations contribute on a massive scale to depleting natural resources, destroying ecosystems, changing the climate, exhausting water reserves and precious topsoils. We are playing a game of brinkmanship with the future, betting that more technology will heal the scars modernity has inflicted on the planet. Economically, a model of ever more growth with finite resources is bound to hit the wall; the recent financial crises are possibly only tremors of larger earthquakes to come. It is probably no exaggeration, but sad reality, that the very survival of many species, ecosystems, and perhaps the human race itself hinges on our ability to move to higher forms of consciousness and from there collaborate in new ways to heal our relationship with the world and the damage we’ve caused.
Organizations over the course of evolution (Part 1)
Einstein once famously said that problems couldn’t be solved with the same level of consciousness that created them in the first place. Perhaps we need to access a new stage of consciousness, a new worldview, to reinvent human organizations. To some people, the notion that society could shift to another worldview, and that from that worldview we could create a radically new type of organization, might pass for wishful thinking. And yet, this is precisely what has happened several times in human history, and there are elements that hint that another change of mindset―and thus another organizational model―may be just around the corner.
A great number of scholars―psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists, among others―have dissected the journey of human consciousness. They found that in the roughly 100,000-year history of humanity, we have gone through a number of successive stages. At every stage we made a leap in our abilities―cognitively, morally, and psychologically―to deal with the world.
There is one important aspect that researchers have so far somewhat overlooked: every time humanity has shifted to a new stage, it has invented a new way to collaborate, a new organizational model. Part 1 of this book recounts this story: how humanity’s consciousness evolved, and how at every step of the way we have invented new organizational models. (Those successive models are still around today, so this historical perspective has much to offer toward understanding today’s various types of organizations and many of today’s debates in the field of management.)
Here is where things become particularly intriguing: developmental psychology has much to say about the next stage of human consciousness, the one we are just starting to transition into. This next stage involves taming our ego and searching for more authentic, more wholesome ways of being. If the past is any guide to the future, then as we grow into the next stage of consciousness, we will also develop a corresponding organizational model.
Empirical research―what pioneers can teach us (Part 2)
The second part of the book describes in practical detail how organizations operate at this next stage. It so happens that the future is not just around the corner―it is already blending into the present. For two years, I have researched pioneer organizations that have already, to a significant degree, started operating on a new organizational model consistent with the next stage of human development. The questions I was trying to answer as I started researching these pioneer organizations were these:
What do organizations molded around the next stage of consciousness look and feel like? Is it already possible to describe their structures, practices, processes, and cultures (in other words, to conceptualize the organizational model) in useful detail, to help other people set up similar organizations?
I didn’t know what to expect when I set out to identify pioneer organizations. This field is only emerging; would I find any good examples? Would I stumble only on tiny organizations, with too little history to get to any meaningful insights? I felt that rather strict selection criteria were needed in any case―otherwise there might not be much value in the claims the study would make. To be included in this research, organizations could stem from any geographical area or sector (business, nonprofit, education, health, government), but needed to employ a minimum of 100 people, and to have been operating for a minimum of five years along structures, practices, processes, and cultures that to a substantial degree were consistent with the characteristics of the next developmental stage.
My concerns proved unfounded. The twelve organizations I researched (see chapter 2.1 for an overview) overshoot these criteria by a long shot. Many have been operating on these breakthrough principles for a long time, sometimes 30 or 40 years, and not just with a handful, but with a few hundred and sometimes several thousand employees.
Another surprise: I was expecting to find case examples mostly in service professions―health care or education―where work is often a calling, and the organization’s noble purpose helps people transcend their more selfish motivations. I was happy to be proven wrong. Among the pioneers are for-profit as well as nonprofit organizations. There are retailers, manufacturing companies, an energy company, and a food producer, as well as a school and a group of hospitals.
I was also surprised to discover that these organizations didn’t know about each other. I had expected, if I found any such pioneers, that they would know about like-minded peers with whom they would exchange insights and experiences. Instead, they were generally delighted to hear that they weren’t the only ones out there questioning today’s management practices. I came to jokingly think about these organizations as friendly aliens from some old TV series, living right among us for quite a while now, endowed with superpowers but isolated and unrecognized. Perhaps the times are catching up with them; perhaps we are now finally ready to see them for what they are: not merely as friendly but awkward outliers, but as pioneers of our collective future.
Researching these case studies involved two sets of questions (listed in Appendix 1). The first set relates to 45 practices and processes that are commonly discussed in organizational research. They connect to:
Each of the pioneer organizations is astonishing in its own right and would warrant an entire book to tell its story. But of course, as part of the research, I was curious if there was more to it than a collection of case studies: are there patterns and commonalities that point to a coherent new model? Can the pioneers provide not just inspiration, but a template for those aspiring to create more soulful types of organizations?
The answer, clearly, is positive. These pioneer organizations didn’t know about each other and experimented on their own; they work in radically different sectors and locations; some have hundreds, others tens of thousands, of employees. Despite all this, they have―after much trial and error―come up with strikingly similar structures and practices. I find it difficult not to get excited about this. It means that a coherent organizational model seems to be emerging, one we can describe in quite some detail. This is not a theoretical model, not a utopian idea, but a very concrete way to run organizations from a higher stage of consciousness. If we accept that there is a direction to human evolution, then we hold here something rather extraordinary: the blueprint of the future of organizations, the blueprint to the future of work itself.
I write this with full awareness that we are in the early days of this emerging phenomenon. I don’t mean to suggest that this book offers a definitive, fixed description of this upcoming organizational model. As more companies start to innovate in this field, as more researchers look at them from different angles, and as society as a whole evolves, more richness and texture will certainly be added to the picture. But I am confident that, even now, we hold a blueprint for how we can organize entities in ways that make work vastly more productive, fulfilling, and purposeful. Organizational leaders who want to create new types of organizations don’t have to start from a blank sheet of paper; they can draw inspiration from the very concrete descriptions in Part 2 of this book outlining the principles, structures, practices, and cultures that support a new way to come together in organizations.
Necessary conditions (Part 3)
The research for this book has also yielded interesting insights concerning the journey to bring such new organizations to life (based on a second set of research questions―see Appendix 1). What are the necessary conditions to making this new model work? If you are planning to start up an organization and want to, from the beginning, eschew the old model and start on a new foundation, what can you learn from pioneers who have done this before? Or, if you lead an existing organization, large or small, and consider transitioning to this new paradigm, what would be good ways to get started and to engage colleagues in that journey? These are some of the questions addressed in Part 3 of the book.
If we are to overcome the daunting problems of our times, we will need new types of organizations―more purposeful businesses, more soulful schools, more productive nonprofits. Anybody breaking out of the mold and venturing into the new is likely to meet resistance, to be called an idealist or a fool. Anthropologist Margaret Meade once said, “Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” If you are one of them, if you feel called to create a radically more soulful, purposeful, and productive workplace, then I hope that this book will provide you with some extra confidence that it can be done. May it serve as a practical handbook along your journey. I have no doubt that the world is ready and waiting for you.