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Designing a company that nurtures big ideas

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Businesses around the world have entered a rich and turbulent era of experimentation. For a host of reasons, old models of command and control have been challenged and partially dismantled, but they have yet to be replaced by fully coherent, functional alternatives. A regenerative approach offers a way forward, providing a comprehensive view of what businesses can become when they return to fundamental principles in order to start down new paths.

Work design is the key to developing people who have the ability to create a regenerative business. It is the way an organization creates the necessary conditions for its people to accomplish a collective purpose, and in particular it is a business’s functional foundation, the means by which it organizes itself to get work done.

Unless people think about how to work together, it’s difficult for them to coordinate activities, and it’s almost impossible for them to evolve the ability to perform sophisticated actions requiring the integration of multiple skills and disciplines. Work design addresses everything from decision-making processes to reporting relationships to pay and promotion to how people get hired and managed.

When practiced at the highest levels of skill and imagination, it becomes an art of evoking motivation. There are many additional reasons why a business engages in work design. For example, if customers expect consistency and reliability, then a business needs to know how it’s going to deliver those results. The larger and more diversified a business becomes and the more people who become involved, the greater the need for some way of coordinating diverse efforts.

If a business wants to differentiate itself and not do the same things in the same way that everyone else is doing them, it needs to give conscious attention to how it’s working and what it’s working on. And finally, if a business wants to be a great place to work and make a meaningful contribution to society and the world, then it must explore ways of working that are capable of producing these outcomes.

Unfortunately, the majority of work design is generic, haphazard and cobbled together out of a hodgepodge of best practices. When this is the case, a business undermines its own success, sacrificing the larger social contributions that are the hallmark of greatness. Even worse, bad work design relegates human beings to activities that are repetitive, uncreative, unrewarding and spirit-killing.

The alternative is to design businesses from a unified and systemic philosophy of human development. The regenerative approach to work design begins from the recognition that human beings share certain fundamental characteristics:

  • They have an innate desire to grow and improve.
  • They are social and benefit from opportunities to engage with and learn from one another.
  • They derive a sense of meaning and purpose from contributing to something larger than themselves.

A regenerative business elicits and strengthens all three of these characteristics in its employees and builds them into the core of its operations.

Coherence by design

Research on work design and management practice draws from disciplines as diverse as psychology, engineering and education. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of cross-disciplinary investigation into motivation, worker health, change theory, innovation, human development and productivity. This has yielded abundant data, but this data tends to be fragmented and thus applied in piecemeal ways.

What’s missing is a way to bring these diverse streams of thought and research together in a systemic relationship. Without this, organizations tend to cherry-pick small, apparently manageable pieces that appear to fill some perceived gap and attempt to force these pieces into their existing cultures and operations. As a friend of mine used to say, they "beat them to fit and paint them to match."

Needless to say, this approach rarely works, either because it overlooks one or more critical dimensions or because it introduces foreign practices that are incompatible with the organization’s culture.

A new idea becomes just another program of the month: try it; watch it fail; spit it out. A regenerative approach to work design is powerful precisely because it provides a coherent worldview and a framework for integrating all dimensions of human and business development. By adopting a systems regeneration mindset, this approach offers a highly sophisticated way to tie questions of motivation and self-management to the contributions a business makes to its stakeholders.

A regenerative work design is never off the shelf. It is grown from fundamental principles by the people in an organization in a way that is consistent with their own unique nature and purpose.

Work design for performance improvement

Early in my career, I worked with Gary Gift, a business unit leader at a Fortune 500 technology company. He asked a question that startled and amused me — although every manager I’ve worked with since has asked the same question: "What do I do about people who just don’t want to change? They know what they’re good at and that’s what they do. They’re not interested in going beyond what their job description calls for."

"That’s interesting," I responded. "Can you tell me who they are?"

"Well, there are a lot of people like that."

"Okay, but be specific. Make a list of everyone you’re absolutely sure won’t change."

That was harder than he expected, but eventually he was able to do it.

"Now put this list in an envelope and seal it," said, "and we’ll open it in six months."

After six months of our work together, he opened his envelope. As I had quietly suspected, many of the people he had assumed would be most resistant were now leading profound change efforts within his organization.