A History Lesson In Disruption

Culture Change

How can the past provide clues for the future?

AFTER THE CIVIAL WAR the United States was flooded with immigrants looking for new opportunities and a better life. The infusion of cheap labor helped transform the landscape of business from family-owned shops to large manufacturing companies. The Industrial Age brought with it new trends and conditions never before seen or experienced in the history of the country. Frederick Winslow Taylor, later referred to as the father of scientific management, helped develop systems, processes and management practices for companies to manage their employees, vendors and customers.

Decades later the invention of the microchip, fiber optics and other technologies ushered in the Information Age. This was a time when ideas and collaboration became the engines that powered growth.

In the early 21st century the Great Recession shook the world awake to the realities of failed economic policies and excesses. The New Normal taught managers that in a global economy, when one domino falls, others are soon to follow. Today, the New Normal 2.0 represents a seismic shift that matches or exceeds the changes that came with the Industrial or Information Ages. The upheaval spans our economy, culture and workforce. It shapes how we use technology and how we deliver value to customers and communities.

Yet, many of the ways we run our businesses, lead and manage our employees and service our customers still come from Taylor’s practices that can be summarized as command and control. Back then, command and control was needed. Today, this mindset represents a ball and chain that holds organizations back.

What is needed is a whole new operating system for how leaders run their companies. A new awareness is needed to seek and discover blind spots. Companies need to address trends and conditions and imagine and create a future where value is measured beyond the point of sale. Next-generation companies will reinvent themselves not by playing it safe or holding onto comfortable notions based on tradition. They will ask themselves questions that get to the heart of what it means to be human, what matters most, what society values, and how organizations can add real benefit without causing harm.

Today’s leaders should challenge their assumptions, surrender their conceits, rethink their principles, raise their sights and push others to do the same. As Gary Hamel says in What Matters Now, “We know broadly what must be done to create organizations that are fit for the future. The only question is ‘Who’s going to lead and who’s going to follow?’ How you answer that question matters most of all.”

These challenges can seem overwhelming. The best approach is for organizational leadership to ask the following:

  • As the complexity of our organization continues to grow, how can we improve coordination and productivity by creating a shared understanding of what co-workers do and why?
  • With an aging and shifting population creating less demand for what we do, how can we add more value to our goods and services that will last long after the point of sale?
  • Instead of responding to dwindling resources and growing competition by redoubling output efforts how can we provide our people the tools, authority, and accountability to collaborate and implement?
  • As the face of our customers change, and their needs evolve, how do we participate in that evolution, and provide them the amount of value they never imagined possible?
  • As digital influence, creativity, collaboration and versatility become the traits needed in tomorrow’s employee, where are we limiting ‘bottom-up’ communication, and how can prepare our employees to lead the future needs of our business?
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““Yesterday’s industrial era model of growth is on its last tired legs today… What powered prosperity in the twentieth century won’t – and can’t – power prosperity in the twenty-first… The real threat to capitalism isn’t unfettered financial cunning. It is, instead, the inability (or unwillingness) of executives to confront the changing expectations of their stakeholders about the role of business in society.”
– Umair Hague, Director Havas, Media Lab