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Julian Stodd

Seasalt Learning


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The erosion of control


I got told off once, in my first ever job, for making a decision. Taken into the back office and told not to do it again. I was chastised. The surprising thing is not that it took a week for this to happen: the surprising thing is that I thought I was in the wrong afterwards. That I deserved it.

At the time, I was selling televisions (a summertime student job), and the crime I had committed was to admit that the television I was selling was terrible. Asked by a customer whether I would buy it, I said no. Which was deemed wrong. I’d been trained to always say 'yes', that I would love it in my house.

Many structures within modern organisations derive from this position: That the organisation is right and that the individual is troublesome, not to be trusted, liable to get things wrong, and best controlled in thought, word and deed. Just look at social media policies, and IT policy, and the rules and frameworks that cage complexity and deny us the space to think, play and prototype. We exist in frameworks that punish individuality and restrict creativity.

And yet that creativity is the only thing that will save us in the onslaught of the Social Age: A time of constant change, where only the agile will survive, where only the innovative will thrive.

The organisation assumes it’s right in all sorts of ways. Most learning solutions are based upon the (fallacious) notion that we know how to 'do the job' better than the people doing it. And certainly better than a 13-year-old with a YouTube account in Vietnam who has figured out how to do it better and made a video of it. A video that has been shared a thousand times and delivered with social authority. This assumption is flawed.

To be successful, organisations need to discover their agility and to become dynamic, they need to be able to diagnose challenges and respond in fluid ways, not necessarily ways that are codified into process and system. Because those very processes and systems may be the problem in themselves. There is no one solution to tomorrow’s problems, but rather a range of spaces we need to explore, to experiment in, to work in our communities, to solve for.

The agile organisation recognises this. It trusts the people it hired in the first place. It trusts them to make decisions, to co-create meaning and to find sense in things. It trusts them to take action and make their mistakes and it trusts them to learn from these and share their learning. It recognises that the formal, organisational story may not be the only story here; that tying into the tacit knowledge of the community may be the thing that saves us.

It’s not that we don’t need controls, it’s just that we need to open up the spaces between them to give space to breathe, to think, to learn.

Technology, the thing that we think will save us, often ends up as simply another mechanism of control: We dictate what software people can use to share and collaborate, while in the real world, the world that exists outside of work, we live in a Darwinian marketplace of ideas and apps, where only the best survive. I have 140 apps on my iPad. I use 12 regularly. The survivors. What makes us think that we are so clever that we procured the survivors? What if, perish the thought, that system that we procured and paid for last year is no longer solving for the problems we face today. What if it’s one of the 128 that failed? Are we brave enough to admit it?

So, what does the organisation of the future look like? It’s a learning organisation: Scaffolded and reconfigurable, able to adapt, because it’s dynamic in its DNA.

The dynamic organisation hosts vibrant social learning communities, which it both supports and trusts. It relinquishes some elements of control to co-create new stories with these communities. The dynamic organisation recognises that these co-created stories have a higher level of authenticity and validity than ones simply written from on high. Like my story; when I said I wouldn’t buy that television - I may have broken the rules, but at least I was authentic as I did so, which counts for a lot.

Authenticity is not about getting things right all the time, it’s about being honest about how you learn what’s right. And you can’t have authentic engagement without an element of trust. You can’t have authentic engagement when all you seek to do is control.

In the Social Age, the erosion of control is not something to be feared, it’s something to understand and embrace. Sure, you’ve lost control of your brand and social reputation, but unless you fear the response to your actions, that’s no bad thing. And by eroding the controls that make people static and lethargic, by giving them the space and permission to create and to build communities, we find a new balance - one based on trust.

So here is the challenge: Is your organisation dynamic enough? Are you ruled by a mindset of control, or do you have both the spaces and permission you need to co-create the future state? Do you have a freedom to learn, or just a permission to conform?

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Julian Stodd


Read more from Julian Stodd

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