Innovation in human systems

A guest blog by friend of 6heads Patrick Andrews

We need our innovation to be more radical 

These are strange and confusing times we live in.

As we pursue stability and security in our own lives, we are seeing increasing political instability and insecurity.

We pamper and protect our own bodies, while relentlessly attacking the planet and its life support systems.

Our sophisticated health care systems seek to extend the lives of a privileged minority, while we collectively over-consume the earth’s resources, threatening the lives of all.

New technology promises to connect us, yet many of us have never felt so disconnected from our inner selves and each other.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”  

wrote the poet W Yeats in the aftermath of the first world war. For some of us, it feels like we are fast approaching such a time of falling apart.

What to do? Should we try to cling onto some sort of “centre”, buying into the illusion that someone, somewhere is in control? Or do we spin out into cynicism or depression?

Joanna Macey, the Buddhist teacher and systems thinker, has advice for us. She suggests, in her book “Active Hope”, that if we can accept that we are facing major challenges, and form a vision of a different world that we would like to live in, we can start working towards creating that world, no matter how low our likelihood of success may be. We may not achieve our vision but we will find joy and meaning in our lives, no matter what the outcome.  This is what she calls “active hope”.

Like many friends of 6heads, my hope lies in innovation, our human ability to re-think and re-fashion our world.

I am not interested in what most people think of as innovation – incremental improvements in existing products and services. We are hardly going to transform our world through an incremental improvement to the iphone, or a new model of car or even, dare I say it, a more efficient solar panel. We are pretty good at such innovation in our consumer-driven age, and much of it is pretty trivial.  We are kidding ourselves if we think that some new consumer good will transform the world.

Of course we need innovations in products and services. In fact we need a radical re-think of many of the products and services that we take for granted. But where’s such radical innovation going to come from? It is hardly plausible that such change will come from within our large corporations. History shows that they are extremely resistant to adopting any sort of radical change.

Radical innovation requires an organisation to change itself. Yet resistance to change is built into the very fabric of our organisations, through powerful ownership and governance systems designed to put the reins of control in the hands of a small number of people at the top. As author Margaret Wheatley commented: We never effectively control people with these systems, but we certainly stop a lot of good work from getting done.”

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It arises out of an environment where people interact with each other and with their surroundings. The nature of that environment has a significant influence on the nature of the innovation that emerges.  So the real innovation we need is in the way we design our institutions. After all, the design of an organisation is a technology.  Anything man-made can be re-designed.

Some creative individuals have done just that. A famous example in an existing organisation was Skunkworks, a programme established by Lockheed Aircraft in the second world war. The company was given a mere 150 days by the US government to develop a new jet fighter plane to compete with new German planes. A Lockheed employee, Kelly Johnson, had a vision for a small and loosely structured group of individuals, working in empowered teams and unhampered by bureaucracy, who could undertake the project. He created a small team separated from the rest of the company, both physically (a part of the Lockheed factory was walled off for the team) and organisationally (the usual Lockheed policies didn’t apply to this team). Johnson established the conditions where people were freed up to be creative, to follow their gut rather than the rules set higher up, to fail and fail again. The team he set up completed the task ahead of schedule, in 143 days.

Another pioneer was Ricardo Semler, a young Brazilian who took over his family firm in the 1960s and introduced a number of radical steps designed to empower regular employees, including giving them the power to appoint their own bosses.   His radical philosophy was set out in his book “Maverick”.

Up until recently, these have proved to be mostly just temporary phenomena. The immediate crisis passes, or the visionary leader moves on, and things settle back into familiar patterns.  Leaders elsewhere read about the experiment but find the thought of letting go of control simply too scary. Life carries on as before.

This time, however, there are signs that things are different.   In recent years a wave of innovation in the area of organising has been sweeping through the world of work.   This is driven by a combination of increasing disillusionment with the old, top-down ways of organising, and the availability of powerful new communications technology that enables information to flow in many directions, subverting the traditional power of those at the top.  New approaches, rich in promise, are emerging and being increasingly widely adopted: Agile, Sociocracy, B Corp, Teal, and more. Companies that embrace them report significantly higher levels of efficiency, customer satisfaction and staff fulfillment.

One book, Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux (2014), relating stories of companies that are successfully operating without any managers, has become a publishing phenomenon, selling over 350,000 copies and being translated into over 20 languages.  Human systems evolution, says Laloux, is happening.

I have worked with a few individuals and organisations going through such a shift, and have been on my own journey to self-organisation. I can tell you that human systems change is the hardest type of innovation to implement. It requires you to learn to let go, to accept both more freedom and more responsibility. It is about growing up – painful and scary but also exhilarating and life-affirming.

So what do you do if you want to embark on such a shift, or are engaged in it already? I can’t offer a map, but can share some principles that have helped me along my journey to more self-organising ways of working:

  1. adopt abold vision, and stay with it. This is no time to think small. Radical change requires boldness and courage.
  2. have a practicethat connects you with your deeper self and with others. It might be a regular walk in the woods, a long warm bath or a meditation practice, anything that helps to switch off the over-active mind and allows you to tune into a deeper wisdom;
  3. work with humour and humility. Big egos will find this work particularly challenging. Don’t take it or yourself too seriously.
  4. link arms with others. Find others, within or outside your organisation, to remind yourself that you are not crazy, to serve as a sounding board, to share war stories with. This can be lonely work – but it doesn’t have to be.

Changing how a human system works (both your own system and the larger ones we are engaged with) is among the most challenging and rewarding work there is. Take courage – you are not alone!

PA is co-founder of the Human Organising Co, an organisation set up to support and encourage innovation in human systems. Human Organising Co are running an event in London on 10th October for anyone interested in implementing more self-organising and human ways of working. Details available here.