There’s something in the air

There are a number of data points that suggest a need trend line is pointing somewhere up and to the right: something in the air.

Consider these indicators:

  • I spent Friday at the Work Revolution Summit in New York City, where a hundred people had come together to explore new approaches to how we engage with business, with others, and our own aspirations for fulfillment and purpose. This event was very strongly oriented toward the individual and how each person must take on new behaviors and see the world through new eyes if they wish to find their way in a new and changed landscape of work. The organizers published their manifesto a few weeks ago (see Time to join the Work Revolution).
  • Last week, Adam Pisoni, the CTO of Yammer, launched the Responsive Organization website with a manifesto, as well (see Read the Responsive Organization Manifesto). I’ve been in discussions with Adam for weeks before that. His goals are in a sense larger than Yammer, by which I mean they are not limited to the range of activities that we would normally consider within the scope of work management tools, but much more of an adoption of agile and lean principles across the board in the enterprise, as well as the transition to the networked organization.
  • I’ve been in planning with Intervista Institute, a Montreal-based executive education and research organization, who have asked me to develop a Future of Work workshop, planned for Toronto in November, and perhaps Ottawa in February. It’s the first workshop on the topic for Intervista, who is seeing a growing interest. (I will be sharing the outline later in the week).

A few months ago, I made the case that ‘social business’ had become so mainstream that it had ceased to have real emotive force: it no longer represents what’s over the horizon for business, but instead a set of principles for organization around the current generation of work management tools and a handful of no-longer-radical techniques for coworking. Social business is as central to business thinking as the open office, smartphones, and cloud computing. Business has already assimilated the premise of these advances, but there is still a great deal unresolved, a growing sense that we are not done. More needs to be done.

I’ve been writing a great deal this year about the fast-and-loose organization and the new form factor for work. These ideas, and those that are embedded in the manifestos of the Work Revolution Summit and the Responsive Organization, are the start of something different, a departure from business as usual, a representation that foundationally different approaches are needed for business to meet the challenges of our time, and for people to find meaning and purpose in their work.

My sense is that a generational shift is at work. We’ve reached a tipping point where the majority of workers are now Gen X and Millennials, and the Boomers are starting to decrease in numbers. Gen Xers are becoming the driving force in many businesses, assuming leadership roles, starting new companies. They, and even more so the Millennials, are looking hard at the unspoken, tacit assumptions of business culture, most of which are still based on 20th century norms. There is a wide and growing disconnect between these two cadres and the conventions and mores built into the dark matter at the base of business culture.

The dissonance between how we worked and lived 10 or 20 years ago and the stark differences of the world of work today is acting as a catalyst for what will prove to be a wholesale change in work. The obvious atechnological elements of Boomer culture are the first and most obvious consideration. Boomers grew up in a world of typewriters, before email, before cell phones, before the web. The connected world is foreign territory for them, a place to which they emigrated, and many did so reluctantly. Many speak the language of their new territory with an accent.

This new transition will be forced by younger and more supple cohorts, a generation that finds a typewriter as anachronistic as a crank-started automobile or wearing white gloves as formal wear.

The business culture of the future will exploit technology to a degree and depth that would startle Boomers, and new articles of faith will replace the unspoken — and perhaps unspeakable — norms of the postmodern world of work.

Equality will be more than words on a poster, and the gender that a person is attracted to will become an irrelevancy. Remote and results-based work will become the norm. Leadership will be based on regard and trust, and not power. Whole people will fluidly affiliate around work projects, not not be pigeonholed in constrained roles to which work tasks are directed. And Millennials are the best indicator of these trends.

But in the final analysis, the future attitude to work is to question all assumptions, and only retain what works, what adds to the mix, and which opens options. This is why autonomy, purpose, and the regard of those you respect will become the first theorems of a new logic in business: not because it sounds good when trying to hire people, but because it works, and the legacy culture left over from the last century has led to the highest levels of disengagement since we started to pay attention.

At the Work Revolution Summit yesterday, I was in deep discussion with an old friend, Chris Heuer, laying out the groundwork of this post, and it hit me: we may have to partly change everything in order to completely change any one thing in the deepest reach of business culture. And that is the start of another manifesto, I think.