Post-formal Actors

A new generation of leaders

In this article I introduce the notion of the post-formal actor. In contrast to the notion of “formal-actors” as most people who follow the formal roles, rules, norms, and procedures that society, organizations and institutions assign to formally specified contexts, we define post-formal actors (PFA) as people who “operate on” the roles, rules, norms and procedures, by challenging and experimenting with them, (perhaps even ignoring and obliterating them), and by creating new roles, rules, norms and procedures. Post-formal actors can also “operate on” the larger context by reframing the context, redirecting action, and regenerating new contexts.

Post-formal Actor is a very large category of persons that has rapidly emerged on the scene in the 21st century. Think of the individuals who have called into question some of the most stable roles in society — the #metoo movement and Hollywood “norms,” Transgender rights and gender roles and pronoun norms, Black Lives Matter and institutional rules and norms of “civil society,” Greta Thunberg and power roles — may all come to mind. But also, most prominently, the way that Donald Trump calls into question “the office of the president”, and violates the norms of “presidential demeanor and speech,” and how Brexit challenges the post-war humanist project of a European Union.

Greta Thunberg is just one famous example of how even school age children are acting post-formally — they can sense that the institutional rules and the roles they assign them, no longer function as scaffolds to nurture their well-being, support their growth, develop their minds, and prepare them to lead. Rather, they sense that these institutional standards are in the way of their growth and development, and harmful to their well-being.

Roles, rules, norms, and policies are the most fundamental protocols of institutions. Therefore changing them is a threat to the institutions’ identities. For this same reason, many organizations are reluctant to hire post-formal actors, even as they acknowledge their exceptional talents. Several economists have even argued that the purpose of the long tedious sludge of schooling all the way through higher education, is to filter out those gifted people who cannot follow the institutional order. This is related to the phenomena of young entrepreneurs who forego higher education in order to found organizations based on novel roles and rules.

Think of the way the agile movement began with a manifesto of principles. The 15 authors who assembled together in 2001 at a ski lodge in Utah, exemplify post-formal action. In their preamble they called out organizational structures as “Dilbert-esque” and characterized corporate rules as “irrational demands.” It is important to note that they did not see the manifesto as “anti-methodology.” Rather, their goal was to create methodologies that reflected “credible” rules of engagement that were adequate and effective to their goals.

In 2016, Deloitte’s report identified organizational redesign as the top priority for organizational leaders. This opened the pipeline for post-formal actors in leadership positions. Today, as organizations re-structure into decentralized, solution-focused, collaborative team projects, the demand for post-formal actors in the workforce is exploding. However, since business schools that offer degrees in organizational leadership, management, and human resource development, as well as the business programs designed to develop entrepreneurs, coaches and consultant, are entrenched in the same institutional logics that post-formal actors reject, they have been too slow to adapt to support the next generation workforce.



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Bonnitta Roy

Releasing complexity, source code solutions, training post-formal actors, next generation leadership, sensemaking, open participatory organizations