Don’t listen to the noise! New Work, agile, fluid – consultant Kai Anderson can’t hear it anymore.

Toronto skyline at sunset with maple tree branches

*This article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung- Sunday Edition on February 17th, 2019.*

It feels like everyone is singing the praises of “new work” lately. Everything needs to be different; work must be meaningful and free from hierarchy. It must be mobile, digital, and democratic.

Have you arrived in the new world of work yet? Are your customers at the center of everything you do? Or, are you still trapped by the rigid structures of tayloristic organizational silos? Hopefully not. Otherwise your company hardly has a shot at success, and you can’t seriously expect to enjoy your work. Has someone told you this? Or maybe you heard it or read it somewhere?

It’s easy to feel bad about yourself if you are still working within classic hierarchies. But you know what? Don’t pay so much attention to the noise. At countless events and increasingly in publications, a new world is conjured up where everyone has fun and is permanently creative. Behind the most flowery of buzzwords, such as agile or fluid, there is an awful lot of hot – and musty – air.

Of course, it is acceptable to give the tried and true a new coat of paint to improve sales – large parts of the music industry today depend on this approach. And, I must admit, it is principle we, as consultants, have perfected.

However, what we are currently dealing with is a movement with semi-religious characteristics. The New Work advocates refer to themselves as “evangelists” for a reason. As is always the case with self-proclaimed preachers and all they proclaim: caution is advised.

Let’s begin with the popular buzzword agility. Charles Darwin discovered the Theory of Evolution in 1859, and in the 1950s this approach was applied to the business world. Adaptability as the key to survival? Nothing new. This is exactly like the Viable System Model, the foundation of the majority of agile organizational structure. Based on this model, a living, autonomous system can best fulfill its purpose. The construct of self-determination was developed in 1958 with roots in the 16th century maxim subsidiary. It argued that the smallest units within society (at the time, family and community) ought to be as self-determined as possible to ensure that the entire society develop in a way which is best for the whole and the individual.

The New-Work Movement calls for tearing down hierarchies within organizations. That this is a logical conclusion becomes immediately clear for large companies and organizations with an average chain of leadership of fewer than two employees. What one shouldn’t do, however, is to immediately make all bosses redundant. That approach mostly backfires, a prime example being the one exemplary online store Zappos.

The successful fashion start-up from Las Vegas sought to become a radically good, model company and in 2015 it abolished all management positions. Employees would determine workflows themselves; this model was called a “Holacracy”. The result was chaos and endless debate; no one was satisfied and many quit. There is no word on any new success stories.

The tayloristic organizational form remains the undefeated champion when it comes to completing tasks efficiently. Efficient here, change there – each organization much achieve this balancing act in their own way. This certainly does not mean to attach a few start-up units to a large corporation in the hope that “speedboats and tankers” will mutually benefit each other. Neither will it help if everyone suddenly starts wearing sneakers and calls each other by their first names.

To be clear, this democratic, hierarchy-free, corporate ideal espoused by the New-Work movement is a dangerous illusion. It is pure fantasy and self-deception. When business decisions are made via grassroots democracy, no one wants to take responsibility. The result is not a courageous advance, but an uninspiring compromise – the smallest common denominator.

We can all imagine the bitter trench warfare which will ensure. Far more energy will be expended on that than on clients and their needs. The demand, that employees pick their own boss, if there is a boss at all, is absurd. Don’t do it! Who honestly believes, that under such a system a young Steve Jobs (ingenious, unlikable) would have made it to the top of an organization?

In fact, Apple hardly resembles the ideal of the New Work apologists at all. Nonetheless, it is one of the most popular and sought-after employers and is amongst the most valued and innovative corporations in the world. Apple has affected our new working world unlike any other organization.

What the New Work preachers call for is part dangerous nonsense and part “old wine in a new bottle”. Those who wish to be innovative must be curious, brave and open-minded. They must try things out and learn from mistakes, fresh thinking. All this existed long before it was called “out of the box” thinking.

Customer centricity? Absolutely! Claim this entrepreneurial wisdom for yourself, regardless of New Work. This always has been the requirement for innovation and transformation and will remain to be so even after New Work.