Creating the Company of the Future

There has been an awakening.
Have you felt it?

For the first time in my working life, I don’t feel completely out on a limb. For the first ten working years, I pretty much hated the companies I worked for. Some were large institutions, where everyone complained about everything but never did anything about it and the so-called culture and values were often used as a stick to beat people into submission. People talked about “work/life balance” a lot, perniciously pervading the idea that work had to be the bad bit of your life that you balanced off with the good stuff outside of work. One was a start-up consultancy that I joined very early on. It was dynamic, exciting and interesting work. But it was also a place where office politics ruled, people regularly stabbed each other in the back and where I never received so much as a “thank you” from the founders for the 3 years I spent helping them grow a company which they eventually sold for over £500m. It was all pretty depressing stuff. But I decided to try and do something about it.

For the last ten years, I’ve been a part of a successful company which has been quietly beavering away in an attempt to understand what the company of the future might look like. We’ve been driven by an almost spiritual belief that something in the current model of business, fabric of working lives and the connection between individuals and companies is broken and that there simply must be a better way. We’ve mostly been out on a limb and experience has taught us to generally not discuss this stuff openly because, to be honest, up until now we’ve largely been met with blank looks, bewildered stares and the business equivalent of an embarrassed laugh and slight step away from the strange chap you’ve just met in the corner of a party.

But it feels different suddenly; it feels like there has been an awakening. That there are enough like-minded folk looking up from their cluttered desks and oh-too-busy-lives who are questioning the well established fundamentals and daring others to challenge the often heard but rarely questioned “because that’s how it’s always been done”. The evidence is in the fast-expanding number of books on the subject of happiness (especially at work), the plethora of articles popping up on Holacracy, the buzz generated by Buffer Inc blog posts on radical transparency and open salaries and increased awareness of, and conversations about, companies who are leading the charge and trying new stuff such as Zappos and Valve.

Some big statements… Hopefully generating some (sceptical?) questions such as:
- why do we believe there is something broken in the first place?
- what do we think the answers are?
- what have we actually done as a result of our beliefs?
- and what have we learned along the way?

I’ve felt enough of a change to think that this might be the right time for us to write down some of our thoughts and learning; hence this article and a few more to follow. Now seems a good time as there might actually be some open ears to listen and open minds to provoke.

So, why do I even believe that it’s all broken?

Fundamentally because I believe we’re in the middle of a seismic shift that’s going to transform the nature of work, companies, business models and perhaps even society as a result. This is the shift from the Industrial Age to what you might call the Digital Age. The last such change was driven by the Industrial Revolution, a great leap forwards driven by technology which re-wrote the rules of commerce and how human capital was valued and leveraged as we moved from an agrarian economy towards an mechanised one. In turn, this revolution set a series of fundamental changes in motion that radically changed the way we thought of work, its role in our lives and created the very notion of a company. In the end, the Industrial Revolution set the ground work for everything from the five day 9–5 working week to employment contracts, job titles, annual leave, retirement, promotions, command and control corporate structures, professional qualifications, the concept of a career and many other things we just take for granted today.

We’re now in the middle of another revolution driven again by another massive leap in technology which is creating as disruptive a change as the Industrial Revolution before it. Actually it will probably be even more disruptive, discontinuous, abrupt and disorientating because the digital technologies driving the revolution are being invented, re-invented and adopted faster than any industrial technology ever did. And on a more global basis.

We’re following a pattern. The invention of mass mechanisation in the death throes of the Agrarian Age started by making things easier, faster and more efficient. They were like pieces of magic, showing us a brave new world. But then they began to change the very nature of our existence; our working patterns moved from being in tune with nature to those fixed by the owners of the new technologies (e.g. from flexible hours such as the seasons and getting up with the sun to fixed six day weeks with fixed start and end hours and fixed breaks). In turn, this changed our very notion of work and its place in our lives.

I believe you can see the same thing happening now. Initially digital technologies just made life a bit easier and a bit more efficient but now they are fundamentally challenging the very fabric of business (e.g. how companies like Amazon and AirBnB are challenging the traditional model for how and where you make money). They are also challenging the very nature of the value that humans create and how this is harnessed (e.g. think of everything from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk through to how Instagram became a $1bn company with just 13 employees). In the end, we believe this is going to challenge everything from the very notion of what a company is, to how humans conceive of and do work and what place all of this has in society and our individual lives. Everything is, we believe, once again up for grabs!

So, what do we think the answer is? Here’s the short answer - having spent about 10 years thinking about it and trying all sorts of stuff as a result, we think you can bucket all of this potential change into one of three areas:

1) Ownership — who owns companies, what do these people value and how are they rewarded;

2) Happiness — putting as much (if not more) emphasis on long-term happiness as on short term results, economic performance and money;

3) The organisation and structure of companies — rethinking how humans collaborate in an age where technology is fundamentally altering how we work, process information and where and how humans create value.

It’s around these that we’ve been experimenting, prototyping, learning and iterating our own company. Everything from our values and culture to how we are organised and remunerated. It’s been quite a journey and it’s not over yet! So, my next article will shed a light on some of the current principles and ideas we’re employing right now…

Part 2 - “Companies of Happy Owners”

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