The Problem With Organization Design: Part 6

The Nature of Work

Nebulous 05 © Mark Dorf

By Dara Blumenthal, PhD and Nathan Snyder

Increasingly, we are dealing with higher order, more complex problem sets in our work and in the world. This is fundamentally what it means to be in a networked economy and why we need to organize more as living systems. It is the cause and condition of most organization design and development efforts today. This isn’t simply about organizing and accomplishing our work differently. This is about grasping how work has changed, the nature of that change, and that what’s required to truly embrace human centric management is a qualitatively new conception of the people who are operating organizations today.

Consider Nathaniel Branden’s observations:

“We now live in a global economy characterized by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs, and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments create demand for higher levels of education and training than were required of previous generations. Everyone acquainted with business culture knows this. What is not understood is that these developments also create new demands on our psychological resources. Specifically, these developments ask for a greater capacity of innovation, self-management, personal responsibility, and self-direction. This is not just asked at the top, it is asked at every level of a business enterprise, from senior management to first-line supervisors and even to entry-level personnel…Today, organizations need not only an unprecedentedly higher level of knowledge and skill among those who participate but also a higher level of independence, self-reliance, self-trust, and the capacity to exercise initiative.”

The traits that organizations now need — the requirements organizations now place on those who operate them — are of a whole different order of complexity than what workers were asked of in the past. This is what the past 100 years of developmental science shows us. It used to be sufficient for workers to do what they were told, to manage like task masters or cogs within a machine. That is no longer the case and we can no longer build organizational machines. Traits of work are literally demanding higher levels of cognitive, socio-emotional, and psychological development than have ever been required of a workforce writ large.

If we want to build “generative living systems” — an already more complex task than building a linear non-evolving machine — we need to recognize, enable, encourage, and support higher levels of complexity within people. We can’t put new constraints on systems and then say, “okay now make it work better”, if we don’t fundamentally comprehend what we are asking of those people in and of those systems. Put simply, “for those at a higher level of mental complexity, a complex world is more manageable” (Kegan and Lahey). This requires us to reimagine management and to reinvent our jobs as organization designers and developers.

Furthermore, the data on the actual mental complexity of workers shows the already large gap is widening between what we now expect of people’s mental complexity and what most people’s minds are actually capable of.

While we have leveled up our expectation of workers and leaders to express more of the traits Braden points out as necessary, very little has been accomplished to make that a reality for those who are actually accountable, at all levels of an organization. We have increased the task demands on people within organizations without commensurately advancing the organization’s ability to support their developmental growth. In attempting growth, while superiors are eager to suggest a new set of values, skills, or leadership characteristics for employees (to assimilate), they infrequently are ready to do so while thinking longitudinally about how those suggestions affect the (accommodation) capability of employees. The systems, techniques and approaches of most organizational development and design efforts don’t adequately advance human development, thus placing people further in over their heads.

If we don’t at the very least, firmly plant the recognition of how, why, and the imperative for adult development in our organization design and development efforts, we will never organize ourselves in fundamentally new and different ways that can actually cope with the complexity we increasingly face in our work and in the world.

Most contingency and Institutional approaches — the chief approaches that most organization designers recommend — only describe organizations as metaphoric “living systems” missing the advantage to treat the humans, who comprise these organizations, as living, evolving adults. However well intentioned, many don’t yet give the people doing the work, the conditions they require to grow, because they only glimpse the struggle and the potential of human development. All too frequently, well intentioned change efforts espouse being systemic but leave only part of the organization, or person for that matter, “better”. Often we don’t realize that by approaching change as modifying just one part, will only compound the systemic and cultural problems of the whole.

We’re not talking about a double, triple, or quadruple bottom line — where people are valued as equal to profit — we’re talking about intentionally meshing people’s development with their work, their teams, and the whole functioning of the organization.

To transcend the binary offered by contingency and institutional theory we need to create Deliberately Developmental Organizations. Those are organizations designed and functioning based on the developmental relationship between people doing the work and the work that needs to get done. The molecular structure of these organizations is designed based upon the developmental conditions of their employees, leaders, and owners. In our view, this isn’t a ‘nice to have’ or a perk, it is an imperative. Development is the largest people performance indicator but also the most unrecognized KPI in organizations today. If organizations are going to excel, compete, and at least productively cope with the higher order problems they face now and into the future, we need to level up the capability of our workforce. Human development can no longer be an aforementioned byproduct of work, it needs to be made the condition of work in the 21st century.

Our firm focuses on aligning work to human development, turning work tasks into growth opportunities for all interested stakeholders. This better equips people to be independent, self-reliant, self-trusting, and more able to exercise initiative required in today’s world. (This creates the conditions that more readily lead to innovation.) Through giving attention to the complexity gaps between the people accomplishing the work and the goals of the organization, we help refactor, and in some cases reconstitute work to become a developmental opportunity for the whole of the organization.

We begin by identifying the developmental gaps between what is expected of people and what their minds are actually like. Then we create developmental ecosystems of practice that directly feed into the goals of the organization and how people get their work done. Our organization design is deliberately developmental. What this looks like and how it functions is entirely reliant on the relationships of where people are developmentally, their growth potential, and the extent to which an organization is ready and willing to participate in that development. Sometimes we work bottom-up and other times we work top-down. In either case our objective is always to support the people facing challenges. We help people use those challenges to ask new questions, find new solutions, and develop in the process. We help organizations turn their greatest asset into their greatest strategic advantage.

If you’re interested in learning more about adult development and/or what is means to become a developmental organization let us know.

Read the whole series: Part 1: The Root of the Problem, Part 2: Getting before and beyond the Firm, Part 3: Laboring While Human, Part 4: The Need for Deliberately Development Organizations, and Part 5: Human Centric Management

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