Center for Innovative Cultures

Helping organizations thrive by unleashing the talent, passion, and potential of people at work

Organizations Designed for Disengagement and the Journey to an Agile Culture

“It would seem that organizations are designed for disengagement.” So said Jim Keane, CEO of Steelcase at the recent Drucker Forum in Vienna. Keane began his presentation with a slide that had the single figure “87%” on it. “That’s the global percentage of the workforce that is not actively engaged in their work.” He deftly made the point that you don’t get that sort of “performance” randomly, but (perhaps unknowingly) “on purpose” because of the way we’ve come to continue to design our organizations on the model of the industrial revolution’s “factory,” with its repetitive jobs, functional siloes, and hierarchy of decision-making that tends to push all decisions upward. Committed to such a model, executives spend their time trying to create sophisticated incentive schemes to get workers to “do” their jobs, rather than thinking of making jobs something people want to do. Keane asks, “Could it be that by creating efficient, repeatable, scalable business processes, we have engineered the meaning out of work? We hire diverse people with different skill sets, and we ask them to do the same job, the same way as everyone else. We set up rules and metrics to reduce errors through conformity and drive productivity through incentives and punishments. We are hoping that being less bad will somehow make us good. We don’t dare to dream about being great. In fact, in these engineered workplaces, an employee would have to break the rules to do something remarkable.” (see his post on “Meaningful Work” on the Drucker Forum Europe Blog)

A very thoughtful presentation from someone whose work experience is with a 100+ year old “manufacturing” organization. Keane comes across as a very clear-eyed optimist about the possibilities of doing things differently in organizations.

I had the good fortune to be able to attend this year’s Drucker Forum thanks to my participation in the Scrum Alliance’s Learning Consortium that examined emerging practices from companies in the creative economy. From a variety of companies (big and small, relatively young and relatively old, European and American, “high tech” and hard core manufacturing), we found a set of similar practices that supported “organizational cultures that are at once good for those doing the work, for those for whom the work is done, and for the financial health of the organizations themselves.” Some of these practices include focus on added value and innovation for customers, managers who are enablers rather than controllers, communication that is open and conversational, and physical workspaces that are noticeably open, egalitarian, and collaboration friendly.

The theme of this year’s Forum was “Claiming Our Humanity: Managing in the Digital Age.” Many of the ideas presented at the Forum—like the ones presented by Jim Keane and the ones presented by the Learning Consortium—dovetail with the mission of the Center for Innovative Cultures: helping organizations thrive by unleashing the talent, passion, and potential of people at work. Exciting times!

You can download the Learning Consortium’s complete report by clicking below: