Parts of the New Work debate give the impression that for decades all we have done is develop a complex, ineffective and rigid work environment in organisations that exist without having the slightest regard for the customer. It is amazing that this has worked quite well in many companies so far.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a supporter of the so-called New Work concept. We should just look closely at what is new about this work environment and what we have already known for a long time, without necessarily putting it into practice successfully.
Take the mantra keep it simple, in other words to reduce the complexity of our working reality. It is nothing new and in no way an invitation to think more simply or to trivialise complex issues (which tends to happen nowadays as we are swept along by the tide). Taylorism was a way to reduce the complexity of industrial production, making it all possible. Initially lean management with Kanban was developed in 1947 – an organisational principle with the aim of reducing the increasing complexity of production processes. Overhead cost value analysis, business process redesign – all procedures for reducing complexity, still relevant today, albeit under a new label.
With the increasing dynamics of our global economy, its complexity is growing and we cannot prevent it. It has actually reached a degree of complexity that can no longer be predicted in the long term, as Prof. Singer no less, one of Germany’s most renowned neuroscientists, convincingly asserted. We will not resolve this dilemma by no longer planning. Our planning has been becoming increasingly short-term for the past 20 years. Strategic cycles have halved in this time.
In this time we have also harked back to an organisational principle which is one of the few universal principles that is capable of enabling a successful existence in our VUCA world. Subsidiarity was developed over 400 years ago as a Calvinistic form of community and provides for decisions to be made at the lowest possible level. According to Wikipedia‚ it is ‘a political, economic and social maxim that strives for self-determination, self-responsibility and the development of the abilities of the individual, the family or the community’.
Here it gets exciting: in addition to the family and the community (representative of any other type of organisation), the development of the abilities of individuals is addressed. That certainly sounds a lot like New Work, dear evangelists of the New Work concept. Admittedly, most companies urgently need to act on this point. Even when decentralised, the smallest organisational unit – the human – usually still does not get the freedom required to reach their full potential and thus for their own personal development and that of the organisation. Of course, this freedom goes hand in hand with an open culture and an agile management philosophy. Cause and effect cannot be separated from each other. We have to define the rules and provide the means to ensure this freedom and then rely on the self-regulatory power of the whole system. Provide the tools and get out of the way. But that’s nothing new.
Having the freedom does not necessarily mean using it. This is the responsibility of the individual. Ideally in the form of self-determined individuals who show initiative and keep themselves and the whole system capable of learning. This concept of man is the foundation of the subsidiarity principle – not new, but more up-to-date than ever.