Business to the Power of One

I’ve often wondered about Mr. Franklin’s rather concise list of certainties. Specifically, why he never thought to include change in his account of what we can expect in this life. Maybe it’s because if you look back in history, for all things change, in some ways they really don’t.

Consider COVID for instance. There is little doubt that the novel virus has had a lasting impact on life as we know it: personally, professionally, and economically. To read some of the major headlines from the last two years, you would think that the pandemic was both unexpected and unprecedented. Pick up a world history textbook covering the last millennium, however, and you’ll find reams of evidence to suggest otherwise. 

History Repeating

This is certainly not a history lesson, but there are themes and trends that are worthwhile to consider, especially throughout the industrial revolutions of the last two hundred and fifty years. For every innovation, from the invention of the steam engine to the internet, there has been a corresponding period of conflict, strife, and illness: from pandemics, to wars, to economic recessions.

Is this, then, the eventuality we should expect? Are we doomed to move through this cycle forever, each of us expecting nothing more than death and taxes?

We may as well slot ourselves into a handbasket and get carried down the road paved with good intentions. 

Thankfully, we have tools today that will allow us to break this cycle. However, the first step to changing anything is awareness: of the need for change, of the issues that hold us back, and of the resources we have (and need) to make positive, lasting change happen. In a commercialized world, this awareness must come from business. 

Fortunately, there are companies out there championing the cause and working towards creating a new model of business. You’ll know them when you see them. They are the companies challenging the traditional concept and structure of industry: changing designations and organizational structure, embracing diversified and innovative methodologies for business success.

From remote teams to democratic autonomous organizations (DAOs), these collectives are paving the way for the realization of what business should be about in the twenty-first century. 

However, these pioneers often struggle to get purchase for their ingenuity. Companies that embrace the idea of remote teams find it difficult to merge the traditional concept of leadership and management with the unique needs of a culturally and geographically diverse workforce. Many leaders and coaches bemoan the challenges that come with this new way of doing things, often because the new way is not quite working out the way it’s supposed to.

While there may be many reasons for these challenges, one stands out in stark relief: companies are trying to change the rules of business without realizing that it’s the rulebook itself that needs to change. 

A prime example of this is the concept of trust in the employment relationship. In an industrial setting, trust between a manager and an employee is proven by presence. The employee arrives at work and the manager is assured, by sight, that the employee is engaged in a work effort. The manager has no such assurances when the employee works remotely. They must rely on the employee’s self-management and their commitment to the company’s goals, neither of which are as easy to prove as direct observation. 

Many companies have failed spectacularly at managing this shift, implementing restrictive and punitive measures like keystroke loggers to check employee effort. To an experienced employee, nothing says I don’t trust you quite like micromanagement does.

Companies that want to make an impact in the twenty-first century must chuck out the industrial rulebook and start writing fresh new guidelines for the future of business. Realistically, with the level of automation that already exists, business doesn’t need to become more industrious. And we don’t need to keep looking for ways to make employees more productive. 

The age of computers forged all the tools we need to streamline effort in the pursuit of economic gain. We’ve come to accept this period in history as the fourth industrial revolution. This is supposed to be the information age: the era of the internet of things. And maybe this is where business goes wrong. 

We don’t need to revolutionize industry; we need to evolve past the idea that economic and social advancement depends on it.

Evolution not Revolution

The Renaissance gave us the last great era of knowledge and intellectual advancement. It’s a period in history we can learn from, if not look to emulate. Specifically, the Renaissance gave the world humanism: something that seems to have been lost in the development of industry in the centuries since then. 

You only need to consider the term human resources to see the truth of this.  

Throughout the last three industrial eras, human effort has consistently been assimilated into a commodity that companies use for processing and output. It’s only in the last thirty years or so that the business world even seriously considered that managers need to be sensitive to the needs and motivations of individual employees.

The net result of this long-held perspective is institutionalized classism. Leaders are chosen for development, managers are trained to excel in their functions, and the individual employee is generally left to the mercy and whims of both. This is the industrial rulebook.

It’s not to say that all leaders and managers subscribe to this outdated way of thinking. There are many business leaders who see the value of developing the unique skills and talents of employees. They know that trying to control a person’s efforts will never be as effective as developing their individual power and then harnessing it for the benefit of the company.

Strong leaders give their team members personal attention and customized opportunities for advancement. They are not threatened by the success of their team members, but rather empowered by it. The most astute business leaders accept that true leadership means giving every employee the space, skills, and motivation to lead and manage themselves.

Companies that promote self-leadership understand the value of creating meaning for every worker. They consider the fact that employees are, first and foremost, human beings with human needs beyond the demands of industry. And they recognize that, while the vision for the company is set out at the top, it’s the employees who engineer the mission to its conclusion.

These organizations and their leaders are the future of business. They are the pioneers of the next Renaissance, offering a hint of hope that there is a brighter future for work.

They say you learn from the part of the story you focus on. If the first Renaissance teaches us anything, it’s that industry will never hold a candle to the power and impact that is created when everyone knows, recognizes, and values their own worth.

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