The Corporate Rebels visit Roffey Park and spark some thoughts….

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November 23rd, 2016

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I had the pleasure of hosting a morning at Roffey Park recently with Pim & Jost, aka The Corporate Rebels. You can find out more about who they are and their story so far here – they tell it better than I can. The essence is that, after a couple of years in their first corporate jobs, both become disillusioned and embarked on a mission to meet with and talk to thinkers, practitioners and organisations who are doing – or attempting to do – work and organisations differently. Their world tour has seen them meet Simon Sinek, Frederic LaLoux, Meike Bartels and a multitude of other practitioners and thinkers, plus visit Google (a great read, as it gets into the shadow side of an organisation often held up as an exemplar of how organisations ‘should’ be), Morning Star, Spotify and more.

What I was left with from the morning were a few reflections and thoughts sparked by their sharing their journey. The following is by no means representative of everything they said, rather it is was what resonated with me in my own generational and work contexts.

  • “There is no magic formula” – there was a lovely moment where Pim acknowledged that they had thought that, by meeting all these people, they would end up with ‘The Answer’ and something to sell/use as a next stage in their work. And there is no one way. All those books written by academics, gurus, business leaders and such? Well, they may Depending on many factors. And the time of day and whether the tide is in our out. But the certainty of success offered by many is illusory.
  • “Different models saying similar stuff” – as above. Very little is genuinely novel out there, rather we are good at trying to find a magic bullet for challenges that have been and remain part of the human condition, much as we’d like our technological and intellectual cleverness to make things easy.
  • “It is the attitude not the model that matters” – this was intriguing. I had a great conversation with a practitioner and theorist recently, about his approach to customer experience. His model is elegant, well researched and thought through; it’s been tried, tweaked, honed and polished. In our conversations about how we might work together, he also shared how he had noticed the difference between how it lands with clients when he is using it, and when others apply it. Whilst the latter worked, there was often not the same impact. Similarly, Pim and Joost heard similar stories from other practitioners,
  • “The tyranny of purpose” – much has been written in recent years about meaning and purpose at work. Whether motivation theory (Dan Pink), organisation design (Holacracy, Teale) or leadership (endless development programmes and books linking leadership and purpose). It is cat nip to millennials apparently (parking for a moment the fatuousness of categorizing so many people under one neat label), and conferences that shine a light on it. There is merit in all of these, and I agree with the importance of purpose and meaning when it comes to the world of work, and everything has a shadow. What happens when purpose is overegged? It can lead to burn out as people become sell-driven to an unhealthy extent, to the squeezing out of dissent, and the undervaluing of difference. It is a way to a different kind of tyranny at work, but tyranny none the less.
  • Technology amplifies patterns of behaviour – no, your new collaborative technology will not fix your culture, it will just make more visible what you already have. It is still a human challenge not a technical one, so get better at leading and influencing culture change.
  • Self-management means letting go – I work at an organisation that advocates self-managed learning, and I am encouraged to self-manage. There are bumps in the road with this stuff, but the biggest one is when organisations leap onto self-management whilst missing out the bit about allowing people genuine autonomy and permission to fail. Without that, it is ersatz self-management.
  • “Radical transparency gets killed by power” – another of the tropes of recent years, it is particularly susceptible to the influence of power. If you haven’t got to grips with the power dynamics in your system, then no amount of transparency, radical or otherwise, will change things long term.
  • Wholeness or cult? – Some a la mode trends in organisational design thinking advocate wholeness. A bedfellow of tyranny of purpose, Pim and Joost observed that in some cases organisations that strive for ‘wholeness’ can end up feeling more cult-like than anything else.
  • Generational differences and sameness – picking up on my own irritation with the term ‘millennials’, I was struck by what happens when a room full of people get genuinely curious about their similarities and differences, rather than leaning into assumptions and expectations based on the wider discourse around generations in the workplace. Yes there are differences, and the more these are amplified at the expense of similarities, in particular those shared and profoundly human concerns about work, we miss out on a huge opportunity.

We plan on having Pim and Joost back at Roffey Park in 2017 (drop us an email if you want to find out more), and I am looking forward to hearing what else they are seeing and hearing on their travels. More than anything, I value the multiple perspectives they are seeking and the attitude they are sharing them with. Refreshing.