Back in the day, each organization had one clear objective, and each person in an organization had one clear job that helped the organization realize that objective. We knew what to expect and we could execute our function without too many surprises. The cobbler made shoes, the barber cut hair, and the farmer grew crops. Each had certain tools they needed and each needed certain people who knew how to use those tools. Occasionally someone might come along with a better tool and then someone had to learn how to use it, but those advances were relatively few and far between.
The hive mind was making our world a very different place at a very fast clip.
And then computers and software came along and changed everything. Suddenly we were able to adapt by leaps and bounds. The tools that were created to help us do things better and faster were so agile that they could literally be adapted while someone was using it. The person who used the tool was able to give constant feedback to the toolmakers about how to make those tools ever-better. It was no longer just the toolmakers’ brain thinking up better tools, it was dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of brains thinking about how to make the tools better. The hive mind was making our world a very different place at a very fast clip.
Today we have the opportunity to make tectonic shifts in business, education, the arts—virtually anything we do where people gather together for a common mission. But there is one thing that’s holding us back. We are pushing innovation and entrepreneurial spirit using a 19th Century organization model.
We are still organizing people as if the technological revolution never happened. We still create specific positions for specific jobs and find the person with the specific traits that match that position. We think of our organizations as if they are stagnant—their missions un-evolving—and staff them accordingly, with a rigid org chart that assigns each person explicit tasks that help get the widget made. We feel compelled to organize our organizations like a toolbox or desk drawer—a place for everything and everything in its place, but people are not things. We are highly complex, constantly evolving beings who, as a species, have virtually infinite potential.
The organization should not define what people do. People should define what the organization does.
By creating structures that dictate how every person should behave and act, we lock ourselves into a way of thinking that prohibits rapid progress and revolutionary change. The organization should not define what people do. People should define what the organization does. People should be allowed to drive the change by creating an environment where they can seek out new opportunities and new challenges.
Organizations should be adaptive systems. They should be simultaneously responsive and proactive—quickly coming together to form the optimal unit for any given emerging threat or opportunity. Strictly focusing on current operations is stagnancy and stagnancy is death. It results in people disengaging and organizations being left in the dust by the new fresh-eyed competitors. (And if you think your area, business, or industry doesn’t have new competitors, you’re probably already doomed.)
And how does an organization go about practicing such an adaptive model? Development.
Hire people who can tackle the job at hand, of course, but those people must then be given the opportunity to grow. Creating a culture where development opportunities are only granted as rewards or concessions is dull thinking. That kind of attitude will surely drive top-performers elsewhere. On the other hand, a culture where development is the rule—where it’s expected of everyone and built into the job—is where great people gravitate and do great things for the organization. What’s more—and this is an essential point—getting people to develop competencies that match the position or needs of the organization is backwards. Again, it’s the people that drive the change. It’s individuals’ development that will dictate where the organization goes and grows, not the other way around.
This is by no means a small change in how we’ve been operating for millennia. The idea that organizations will now be rapidly evolving units driven by a collective intelligence is even a bit scary. Nonetheless, if we are to constantly drone on about the need for innovative thinking from the people who make up organizations, we must provide them with a culture and environment where they can cultivate and actualize innovative thoughts.