With horizontal practices, organisations could be amazing

Organisations could be amazing. I submitted this as the title of my talk recently, when I was invited to New Zealand to speak about the future of work. What came back was that the title was too negative. But it’s true that when I think about the present state of our workforce and organisations, ‘amazing’ is not the word that comes to mind.

For many, organisations and their work are the places to manifest their potential, and action in the world. With roughly 80,000 working hours in a lifetime each, it’s clear the way we work is important. And with no lack of meaningful societal challenges to work on, it seems like a natural fit that these two could go together. But we have a crisis of engagement and participation. Many have heard the figure from the infamous Gallup research study floating around: 68% of people are disengaged in their work.

Why are people disengaged? The obvious answer is that the work itself isn’t meaningful. People want to work on stuff that matters. Delivering sushi on demand efficiently by bicycle is not “changing the world”. But I think the crisis goes beyond that.

I work with organisations that want to move away from hierarchical structures to more ‘horizontal’ and participatory ways of working. I think the single most powerful thing we can do reinvigorate participation, engagement and a sense of meaningful responsibility in society, is to distribute agency, power, decision-making and ownership in our organisations. Some people like to call this ‘distributing governance’. To me, it’s distributing the parts of an organisation that make it come alive, but too often these parts are reserved for the people at the top of the hierarchies.

This can all sound very abstract, but when people try out these human practices, it’s amazing how much can change quickly. There is a click of recognition that these small practices can lead to accumulated shifts in a sense of empowerment, sharing, agency, leadership.

Decision-making is one of them. How are decisions made in your organisation? Is it invisible or explicit? Decision-making is a rich landscape with many different patterns one can turn to – depending on the context, the time pressure, how many people need to be part of the decision, and whether the priority is speed or participation. With the advent of online tools, the process can even go to online spaces, allowing wider participation and removing the need to be in a room together.

Decision-making is an art, but not one that is actively taught in our schools and workplaces. We do not have practice in using different forms. By developing the muscle of making decisions in different ways, and building out a toolkit of practices, something that at first feels a bit clunky can become agile, participatory a tool for collective intelligence.

Let’s turn to meetings. How are meetings held in your organisation? Who holds the power in the meetings? Who makes sure everyone in the room has a chance to speak? Do you have someone to facilitate, and does this facilitator role rotate regularly? Small rituals like starting with a ‘check-in’ round to allow everyone to be heard at least once, and learning how to construct agile agendas together at the start of a meeting, immediately distributes power in the room.

Transparency is something we actively value in society – it signals integrity. But we come from a culture where information is power, and power is concentrated in hierarchies. Breaking the ‘closed’ culture and moving towards an ‘open-source’ work culture is in my opinion one of the hardest to shift, being so entrenched in competitive culture, IP and copyright. When we move from ‘default to closed’ to ‘default to open’ culture, we suddenly find ourselves asking questions like, ‘Why do we keep salaries private?’ and ‘What would happen if all employees could see each other’s salaries?’.

This is just a taste of what can be referred to as ‘horizontal practices’. Small practices, built up over time, lead to emergence of culture. The culture that appears often looks something like this: one of agency, care, learning, mutual understanding, and personal leadership. With a future of work set to be dominated by devices and automation, machine-like tasks which we spent the last 150 years mimicking as humans could now become altogether obsolete. It’s never been more important that we develop horizontal, egalitarian and flourishing workplaces. If the machines give us back our engagement in the workplace, maybe it’s not such a bad future after all.

This piece was commissioned by Labour Together, which is guest editing LabourList this week.

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