Ever found yourself sitting in another performance improvement meeting listening to a “sensei” discussing how to reduce waste or error by another Sigma and wondering if it is only you who secretly thinks “have these guys heard of the law of diminishing returns”?
It seems to be a trope in contemporary business management thinking that if only we are intellectually creative enough we will find a way around basic laws which operate through just about every sphere of life.
From assuming that infinite economic growth is possible based on finite planetary resources (those externalities which provide all the real wealth but never figure as a cost on most balance sheets) to the idea of the S curve which assumes that it is desirable in an organisation for there never to be a period of some contraction and reassessment.
Adopting this strategy in agricultural systems leads to ruined local ecosystems which then need to be fed, usually with chemical nitrogen, which then runs off into the water supply and has further negative systemic impacts as well as producing a soil which requires evermore fertiliser as the micro environment of the soil itself has been destroyed by the strategy of non-stop cultivation.
The continuing efforts at ever greater process improvements are still fundamentally rooted in a reductionist, Taylorist approach to management which is now 150 years old.
Despite ample evidence that this kind of management approach is totally inadequate to deal with the incredibly fast changing environment in which organisations now have to operate mostly we cling to it like a drowning man clutching a punctured life raft.
Because of this myopia we generally fail to see, let alone deal with, the grossest waste that occurs in nearly all organisations; namely the low value placed on people.
The impact the person has on an organisation which they work for / are involved with goes a great deal further than whatever job or role description they may have.
Most role descriptions still flounder in the quagmire of sticking to what is easily described and therefore easily measured. Yet the largest impact that any person will have on the organisation in which they are involved will be from factors having nothing to do with their role description.
Paradoxically it is the subtle and most difficult to quantify qualities of people which will have the greatest effect on the organisation and on how they fulfil the formal role which has been described for them.
In most cases these qualities, such as innovation, solution creation, emotional intelligence, interpersonal communication skills, intuition, insight, helpfulness et cetera are considered only in the case of people at senior levels of the organisation’s hierarchy.
This is because the assumption remains that most of the other people in the organisation are there simply as “cogs in the machine”. The classic Taylorist view of workers and employment.
In a contemporary environment of massive, high-speed and constant change the two qualities of any organisation for survival and success which have been repeatedly identified are leanness and agility.
In order to implement these two qualities in any organisation it is essential that all the people in the organisation are capable of meaningful and positive responses to stimuli occurring in their interactions both within and especially at the boundaries of the organisation. In order for that to happen it is necessary that all the people in the organisation are adequately empowered to be able to make those responses.
However empowerment is only half the story. Not only do the external means to react need to be present. There also needs to be the sense of personal and individual value and a positive experience of the self within the work environment leading to the ability of the person to apply all the massive resources of their brain to creatively making the organisation hum. Whatever position they may have in the organisation.
We now know from neuroscience that people who feel constantly threatened, stressed with no way of responding to stressors, of little value and deprived of most sense of agency will mainly operate from their primitive brain.
The primitive brain has pretty much three ways of dealing with anything:
Centred on the Amygdala, it has one job; to check whether anything is a threat so it is:
Negative, always sees things in terms of what can go wrong
Obsessive, always re-running past problems and checking if they are about to happen again
Vigilant, always on high alert for any incoming threats
Coupled with that, the primitive brain works entirely by pattern matching against inherited patterns and those established by experience. So it never innovates. It is not an intellect. It does not come up with new solutions.
When we function from the higher brain we have access to an infinitely more nuanced and realistic assessment of a situation and we also have access to the wonderful inventive and innovative capabilities that it possesses.
If your organisation is mainly full of people functioning predominantly from their primitive brain then it may be humming but it is going to be a pretty primitive hum; aggressive, anxious, negative and it should be obvious how that is likely to affect its performance and ability to respond to changes in the environment.
Compared with the ever dwindling ability to extract ever more productivity from limited resources the sheer waste of the impact of people working largely in their primitive brain has to be at least several orders of magnitude greater than any further savings from process.
Of course it doesn’t have to be that way but largely it still is. Against that background it is not difficult to predict that the companies that create soar away value from unbeatable competitive advantage will be those that understand the importance of consciousness in their organisations and in nurturing a workplace based on the higher functions of the neo-cortex rather than the swampy limitations of the primitive brain.
For this reason I propose that nurturing human consciousness in organisations is the next major leap forward in competitive advantage.