As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron Dignan.
Everywhere he looks, Aaron Dignan sees the same phenomenon. Our most trusted and important institutions — in business, healthcare, government, philanthropy, and beyond — are struggling. They’re confronted with the fact that the scale and bureaucracy that once made them strong are liabilities in an era of constant change. For the past ten years, he has studied organizations and teams with a new way of working that prioritizes adaptivity and autonomy over efficiency and control. Aaron contends that teams everywhere need to join them in the future of work.
As the founder of The Ready — a global organizational transformation and coaching practice — he helps companies large and small adopt new forms of self-organization and dynamic teaming. Clients include GE, Kaplan, Lloyds Banking Group, Microsoft, Citibank, FreshDirect, Hyatt, Airbnb, Bloomin’ Brands, Charles Schwab, PG&E, Fidelity, New York Public Radio, and charity: water.
Dignan is an active angel investor and helps build partnerships between the startups and end-ups he advises. He’s also a co-founder of Responsive.org. And he has sat on advisory boards for GE, American Express, PepsiCo, and Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, as well as the board of directors for Smashburger. He is the author of Game Frame (Free Press, 2011) and Brave New Work (Portfolio 2019).
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started my first company over ten years ago with some friends in the digital space, digital transformation, and strategy. We advised large companies like American Express and the Gates Foundation on their digital strategy. The company grew quickly, and we had a lot of success and were very excited about what we had built.
After a few years, I became the CEO. I had a very hands-on oriented management style — everyone had a lot of freedom, and it was a very democratic workplace with a lot going on. When it came to the brand, the strategy, and the design, I tried to drive it and maintain it, and make it perfect. I really thought that if I managed every detail, we would be successful and I would be happy.
And it worked for a while, but towards year seven or so, I was exhausted. I was really, really tired of having to be the one to kind of hold space and hold the system accountable, and try to get everyone to do what I wanted them to. So, I looked at the future of the company, and I thought “you know, this is unsustainable for me. I can’t be this much of a micromanager and feel proud of what I’ve created. And if everything depends on me, then what have I really built?”
So, I went on a walk with my colleagues, and we explored other ways of working and growing the company outside of the traditional hierarchy and bureaucracy and control from a top-down model, and through that journey, discovered all kinds of amazing stuff that’s happening out there. This journey ended up being the seed for this book.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I travel all around the world talking about, consulting and coaching around this idea, and I thought I was going to find vast cultural differences. I thought that you would go to Manila in the Philippines and you would hear a completely different story about work, about what’s going on, what the tensions are and what is holding them back. Then you’d go to Ecuador, and you would hear a completely different story about work.
And what I’ve found that’s stunning is, company to company, category to category, country to country, everybody has the same problems; everyone has the same complaints, the same frustrations, the same hesitations. This way of working is Western, and the second Industrial Age has permeated every corner of the planet, and everyone is grappling with it at the same moment. We’re all living in an age of complexity, an era of rapid change, and using the same old playbook.
So, the universality of this is surprising, to the point where we have these tension cards that we use in our work. The tension cards highlight different tensions, such as ‘we have meetings to prepare for meetings’ or ‘we don’t trust each other’ or ‘we don’t have the information we need.’ There are 78 cards, and they are all the same. When I bring those and put them in front of teams anywhere in the world, they are immediately like “oh! This one and this one and this one and this one!” Sometimes people will look at me and say “Whom have you been talking to? How did this card get in here? Did you talk to this colleague or that boss?”
That’s how universal it is. Just how pervasive this phenomenon of frustration with our way of working is, the frustration with bureaucracy, and the fact that we’re all on the same boat.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
The ‘Big Idea’ is that the way we work is broken. The way we are working now was invented on a factory floor a hundred years ago by industrialists and folks trying to create maximum efficiency and productivity and scale. It was created in a much simpler time, for simpler products and services. And we live in a world today where almost everything has changed.
We have a completely different global economy, we’ve connected in ways we never thought we would be. Technology is incredible! We have rockets that land themselves in the middle of the ocean, and yet the way we manage and run businesses is almost the same as it was in 1911.
So there is a fundamental problem there, and it’s not serving us. It’s not allowing us to do our best work, to feel human at work. Disengagement and overall satisfaction at work are incredibly low and have been low for decades.
Bureaucracy is slowing down our economy. It’s slowing down our goals; it’s slowing down the progress of what we hope will happen in culture. It’s even starting to infect our political system and our economic system. So the time has come for every organization, every leader, every founder, to ask the question “what’s stopping us from doing the best work of our lives?”
It’s time to start experimenting with new ways of solving these problems. New structures, new ways of teamwork, new ways to decide, new ways to meet, new ways to share power and spread information around. That renaissance is happening right now at the edge. And I hope that it will start happening in the mainstream.
How do you think this will change the world?
What I hope it will do is get people to stop for one moment and notice how they are working, notice how they are collaborating, notice how they are teaming and ask themselves the question “Is this the best we can do?” One of the problems is that we live in such a go, go, go society. We leave one meeting, we go right into the next one. We finish one project, we’ve already started another one. We leave one job, we go directly to the next position.
There’s never a moment for reflection. And because we don’t reflect, we don’t learn, and we don’t grow, we don’t change the way we’re doing things. So, my hope is that instead of having that shitty Monday meeting that everybody hates, someone will read the book and say “Instead of having the meeting, what if we stopped and talked for an hour about how we would like to meet? What we need out of the Monday meeting? What do we need from each other? What are better ways that we can get what we need?”
I hope that the book, and the big idea, create moments of reflection and moments of pause. The book is called Brave New Work, so hopefully, some bravery to say “maybe instead of doing the annual budgets, we’re going to try something else. It’s going to be scary, but we’re going to be brave.”
If you could distill your book into three or four foundational principles, what would those be?
Sure! There are two foundational principles in the book that are fundamental to this shift. The principles are ways of thinking about the world, seeing the world, and seeing the people in your world.
Principle #1: People Positive
The first is ‘People Positive.’ This is the idea that generally, people can be trusted. People can handle autonomy. They want responsibility, and they can be creative given the right conditions. They are driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
I often make a joke about fish when I’m giving my speech. It’s not the fish in the aquarium. If you put someone in an environment that rewards individual achievement, secrecy, privacy, and politicking, they are going to look like that kind of person. But at the core, we are not. At our core, we’re aligned with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. So, being people positive is about recognizing that innate human nature and building an organization that accommodates that.
Principle #2: Complexity Conscious
The second piece is a mindset called ‘complexity conscious’. One of the other big ideas in the book is that there are many different kinds of systems in the world; simple, complicated, complex, chaotic. And the two that we confuse the most are complicated and complex, we use these words interchangeably. However, they are not interchangeable. If you talk to systems theorist, they are two different kinds of system.
A complicated system is a system like a watch or an engine. It is cause and effect; it is linear. An expert can fix it.
A complex system is like weather, or traffic, or a garden, or a child. It’s unpredictable. The interconnections, the relationships inside it, are too rich, too dynamic, to make strong predictions of what will happen.
The problem with a complex system is that you can’t solve it, you can only manage it. No one comes home and says ‘honey, I’ve solved the garden today.’ Instead, you manage the garden; you tune it, you nurture it. So, one of the big misnomers or misunderstanding in the business world is that organizations are complicated systems, like machines. We talk about them like machines; we say that this is a machine and its humming and we’re going to get all the people and processes in line to make sure that it’s executing with perfection. When we think about a business like a machine, we treat it like a machine, and we’re frustrated when it doesn’t act like a machine. In fact, it’s a complex system. Ten thousand human beings are working together towards a common purpose. It’s a richly dynamic complex system. The only way to understand a complex system is to interact with it, to poke it, to probe it, to try things, to test and learn.
We need to accept that there is a lot more complexity in the world, in the markets, in businesses, in teams, that we’ve given credit for, and we have to approach them with the right models, the right tools, the right humility to realize the outcomes we want.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. You are the sum of the people around you. Put yourself in a position where you can be surrounded by people that will challenge you, push you, give you unusual ideas. The more diversity around you, the more curation about whom you are spending your time, the more it will help you grow. This is one thing that I would have liked to have heard or at least have stick earlier.
2. The importance of building a community early around the idea. I wish I could go back and start talking about the book idea earlier and start nurturing a community.
3. Get feedback. There are so many environments, especially as a founder, where you live in a feedback-free zone. You might get a little bit of input from the market in terms of your ideas being liked or not, but you may not get the honest feedback from your colleagues. If we are trying to create mastery and growth, we need to be in a conversation about what we are working on, how we are developing, and what’s working in serving us. In the book, I highlight visiting Bridgewater and Ray Dalios, and the ethos around constant feedback and constant attention to the question “Am I getting the impact in the world that I want to based on the approach that I’m taking?” Put yourself in an environment where you get constant and regular support. Supportive, loving feedback is critical.
4. The first and foremost is to follow your energy. Follow your passion, your curiosity. Whenever I see the white rabbit, I chase it. My whole career has been built around that. I’ve gone from one interesting question to the next, and along the way, businesses have happened, and books have happened. They are the byproduct of curiosity, not the goal.
5. Build your life around who you are. If you have things that you prioritize, you have to build your rhythm and your time and schedule around those things. The to-do list is never ending, so you have to decide what’s important early on and protect that. If you want to spend time with your kids, you have to protect that time and make it part of the rhythm, part of the ritual. If you’re going to work out, you have to protect that time.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
That’s a great question! I think there are a couple of things that you can do.
The first thing is, and it goes back to the complicated and the complex, many things that can be captured in a set of rules, in a checklist, in a set of instructions., That kind of work is going to be increasingly automated and optimized and turned into something that we don’t need human beings or as many human beings to do.
The complex work, the work that’s rich and dynamic and creative and hard to predict that doesn’t conform to a checklist, that’s the work that is going to be more and more valuable. So, as an individual contributor, I would look at the parts that I do in my current job that are repeatable or predictable and minimize those. I want to understand them, yes, but I want to minimize them in terms of my overall strengths.
The things that are hard to understand, and that require judgment, mastery, interaction, tuning, practice, and a real human touch; those are the things that I want to emphasize. So, the first thing is to drive towards work that will serve you longer as the world increasingly moves in that direction.
The second thing is that it’s really important that everybody becomes a bit of an organization designer, that it becomes your second job. It’s critical that we learn how to collaborate, how to decide better, how to share and create things. So, your first job is to do whatever it is they say you are great at. Your second job is to be a student of organization and team design, and understand what makes the team successful, what role you play in that, what techniques and tools can you bring to your next project, what decisions make you a better collaborator, better colleague, and ultimately, a better organizational thinker. Not only do we have to work in the business, but we also have to work on the business.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
First, there are new forms of organization. We have emerging public benefit corporations, certified B-cops and cooperatives and other models that are either coming back into favor or that are new and spreading and allowing organizations to prioritize something other than money. I think this is important, and it’s one trend that I’m keeping my eye on.
A second trend is related to new forms of funding. Whether it is something like Indie VC or Eric Reese’s long term Stock Exchange, vehicles for investments are starting to value a broad spectrum of impact and social consciousness. We want the outcomes of a business to be in our culture, as opposed to just the expectation of never-ending growth.
The third trend is just looking at ways that technology might change the way we collaborate in general. So, watching things like blockchain, Slack, Trello and other tools that allow us to come together and solve problems differently. There might be more options for a company to create a genuinely decentralized autonomous organization in the future.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
• Twitter: @aarondignan
• BNW Website: https://www.bravenewwork.com/
Brave New Work is here. Order the book today..
“This book is a breath of fresh air.” — Adam Grant