The [New] Human Movement

Gary Hamel & Michele Zanini

As human beings, we are measured not so much by our accomplishments, but by the audacity of the challenges we tackle. Each of us faces a critical question: what purpose is worth the precious currency of our time?

There are many worthwhile challenges in the world, but one of the noblest is this: To ensure that every human being has the opportunity to fully develop and profit from their unique gifts. This is the quest that animated the work of Mary Parker Follett, Elton Mayo, Kurt Lewin, Douglas McGregor, Eric Trist, Edwards Deming, Chris Argyris, and Warren Bennis. “How,” they asked, “can we build work environments where human beings are free to flourish?”

Together, these pioneers led the most important “movement” in management history — the Human Relations Movement.

They knew that humanizing our organizations would take real-world laboratories, the equivalent of Edison’s workshop, where they could develop, test and iterate new approaches to job-design, decision-making, and the exercise of power. In the 1960s and 70s their vision was a magnet for corporate partners like General Motors, Volvo, AT&T and Procter & Gamble.

Their experiments often produced extraordinary results. Productivity gains of 50 or 100% were not uncommon, nor were dramatic shifts in employee attitudes.

Many of the management renegades were deeply soulful people. Having been forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933, Kurt Lewin had an abiding antipathy towards authoritarian structures. Douglas McGregor had deep roots in the social gospel movement. These were brilliant, disciplined scientists, but their work was suffused with moral courage.

So here we are today, in the shadow of these giants. How would they assess the progress we’ve made in humanizing work? Would they go, “Cool, agile teams, we would never have thought of that.” Unlikely. Instead they’d say, “Are you kidding me, after all these years, this is the leading edge? We had agile teams fifty years ago in dog-food factories.”

So why did progress stall out? Why are we still struggling to fulfill the dreams of Follett, Mayo, McGregor and the rest? Four reasons: Orthodoxy, timidity, fragmentation and irrelevance.

Orthodoxy — As management thinkers and practitioners, many of us remain captive to bureaucratic orthodoxy. Until we’re willing to explore radically new paradigms, we’ll remain stuck — like carmakers trying to wring the last bit of efficiency out of internal combustion engines.

Timidity — We also suffer from ADD — “ambition deficit disorder.” Too often, when challenged to do something radical, we ask, “Who’s already done it?” Instead we should ask, “Is it worth doing?” That’s the question that prompted NASA to send an $850 million drill — the InSight Lander — to the surface of Mars. Would that management researchers were half as ambitious.

Fragmentation — Most researchers work in silos. They seldom reach across disciplines and seem more interested in carving out their own reputational niches than in collaborating on messy, ecosystem-level problems.

Irrelevance — There’s not much management research that is both bold and practical, and thus of interest to those with pockets deep enough to fund field research. Consider this: In a recent year, businesses spent $2.6 billion funding life sciences research in U.S. universities. Another $1 billion went to engineering disciplines. A scant $51 million went to business schools, or barely 1% of corporate-funded university research.

To surmount these impediments we need a new human movement — one that can map the practices of the world’s most progressive organizations and undertake a concerted, collaborative effort to invent tomorrow’s best practices today. We must commit ourselves to building organizations that are as nimble as change itself, that fuel creativity, and that give human beings the opportunity to thrive. For this to happen, bureaucracy must die.

No single organization can create the post-bureaucratic future on its own. What’s needed is a consortium of laboratory companies and a network of inspired innovators all eager to reinvent the way human beings work at scale. Is this possible? Of course. Global research consortia are already common in the sciences. There were, for example, 3,000 co-authors on the paper that confirmed the existence the Higgs Bosun. It’s time for a similarly bold collaborative effort in management — the organizational equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider or the International Brain Laboratory. The goal: resilient organizations, great jobs, and reinvigorated economies.

That’s why, last November at the Drucker Forum in Vienna, we launched The [New] Human Movement, with partners Haier, the Harvard Business Review, and the Management Lab. Our goal: Resilient organizations, great jobs, zero bureaucracy.

A movement takes courage, compassion and contrarian thinking, but it also requires community. If you’d like to be part of The Human Movement, join us at managementlab.org.