Instead of illuminating the future, what if your past experience obscures it? What if the way you always approach a problem, organize your work or conduct your day makes you unlikely to accomplish the things you have planned?

While working decades in planning processes, I’ve observed that people can imagine the future, but do not see the path that will take them there. This gap in our abilities becomes acute as the ways we work become less effective.

Human beings rarely see the end of something coming or the beginning of the next thing. We see in retrospect.  We are averse to change, largely I believe because we don’t like surprises.

We defend the past hoping that it is sustainable into the future, even if we see a better, different one. We may view the past as less than ideal and not satisfying or fulfilling. Nevertheless, it seems known and more certain, more secure, more stable, more predictable, and more comfortable.  The past seems safer. 

The Fallacy of Believing in the Past

Instead of providing us a sound basis for change, the past inhibits us from achieving the vision that we see. Clinging to the past forces us to live by a set of cultural forms that must be defended against change. In other words, conventions around the way we live and work remain the same even after their vitality has gone.

What impresses me about our time is how fast change is happening, and how quickly things we thought were normative seem less relevant.

The first webpage was created in 1991. Websites have become the rage in a short span of time. You aren’t a legitimate enterprise without one, let alone on the cutting edge of business. Today, a presence on LinkedIn (launched 2003), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), and a host of other social media platforms are an accepted, integral and essential component of a business’ identity and strategy.

Twenty years ago, CDs were the norm. Then, Napster introduced peer-to-peer file sharing in 1999, largely music-driven, and now downloads on Apple iTunes (launched in 2003) have completely disrupted how music is distributed.

Forty years ago, the Soviet Union was the West’s nemesis, now militant Islam. In the 1960s and 70s, Vietnam and racial equality were the dominant issues of our time. President Kennedy challenged the nation to go to the Moon within the decade. Today, we’ve known an African-American President, Howard Schultz has opened Starbucks locations in Vietnam and the United States has placed space exploration on the back burner in favor of privatized space travel.

Could we have imagined these changes? Possibly. We’d probably not been able to see how they’d happen. That is the curious thing about visions and visioning. We can imagine the end, but not the means. The pathway to the future goes through today and tomorrow. Yet, we are captives of our past thinking and experiences.  They are the measure of what is possible and what can be done.

The End and The Beginning Are Coming

I have been reflecting on the contrast between work as a set of tasks to be done and the importance of human interaction in meeting organizational goals. I realize we have arrived at a turning point in human and organizational development. The past is the Industrial Model of business organization and the future is organizations as communities of leaders – leader-rich organizations if you will.

Progressivism and Capitalism, along with modern Science, are the principal products of the Age of Enlightenment.

The Progressive Ideal believed, and many of its advocates still do, that through government control of science and industry that a free, equitable and peaceful world could be achieved. Conceived during the 19th century as a belief that society could be perfected, and as a counter-balance to the industrialization taking place in Europe and the United States, it was a utopian belief in a well-ordered, controlled, and uniform world.

The Capitalist Model was born in a belief that individuals should be free to pursue their own economic welfare, and not forced by government rules or economic servitude to do that which they choose not to do. It is the ideology that birthed the Industrial Revolution in the West, which resulted in the rise of the modern middle class and created prosperity for more people than any other time in history.

Both the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist Model have brought great benefits and liabilities to society. They form the two sides of virtually every divisive issue confronting the world today. They are quite similar, yet in very different ways. Both are organized around the control of power and wealth. Both have been institutionalized in the large, hierarchical organizations in Washington and on Wall Street, and in similar institutions throughout the world.

Over the past decade, the Progressive Ideal and the Capitalist model have begun to show their age. The assumptions that underlie these ideologies are being challenged by forces of change that are beyond their control. The control of global forces of change is problematic and less realistic.

The Beginning of the End of the Progressive Ideal

A principal assumption of the Enlightenment is that we can know what we need to know by analytical decision-making. In other words, by identifying the parts of a situation, we understand it, and therefore can design a strategic mechanism for controlling the outcome. This analytical process works very well in the realm of the natural sciences, less so in the realm of the social sciences. To paraphrase novelist Walker Percy, “Science can tell us how the brain functions, but not about the functioning of the mind.”

I see the beginning of the end of the Progressive Ideal and the end of the beginning of the Capitalist Model. Neither of these observations is political statements. I am not a Democrat nor a Republican. I am not a Progressive nor a Libertarian. I find none of the current choices of political affiliation representative of my own perspective and values. I speak as an outlier, and not an antagonist.

I see these ideological movements as products of a different time in history.

The assumptions and the way of thinking that brought these ideologies into prominence are now receding in appropriateness. The conditions that gave rise to these ideas over the past three hundred years are now giving way to new conditions. If progressivism and capitalism are to survive, then their proponents must change.

The End of the Beginning of the Capitalist Model

The ideologies born in the Age of Enlightenment share a reductive approach to knowledge. In other words, we gain knowledge and understanding by breaking things into parts. The assumption is that things are collections of discrete parts.  Yet, we know that in the natural sciences, the mixing of different chemical elements creates something new and different that cannot exist in any other way. Water being the most obvious example.

However, in the social realm, there is a shift toward emergent knowledge as the basis for understanding what is.  The emergent perspective sees connections and wholes rather than just parts. In a network of relationships, the value isn’t one person, but rather the connections that one person has to other persons.

Think of it as the difference between those radio ads selling lists of sales leads, and knowing the person who has a relationship with 100 of those buyers. The former is a list of contacts, of names and addresses. It is a parts list. The other is a network of connections that one person has. This single person with a network of connections is the future. It is based on relationships.

We see emerging forces all around us.

The book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom explores centralized structures and the implications of the recent rise of decentralized organizations. The spider (centralized structure) is vulnerable at the top; cut off its head and it dies. Take down the leader and the organization suffers significant loss of prestige and power. The starfish (decentralized system) is not vulnerable at the top because there is no head; cut off a leg and it grows a new one. In a decentralized system, no single expression controls the fortunes of the whole.

The centralized structure is the industrialized model of the past and the decentralized organization is an emergent one of the future.

 The Emergence of Freedom and Democracy on a Global Scale

The system that the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model share is one of centralization. Operating separately from both are independents and small business entrepreneurs. The difference is a hierarchy of control versus a network of collaborative relationships.

The Arab Spring of 2010 is also an example of this emergent model. The use of cell phone and Internet technology to connect people in agile, less structured ways made these rebellions possible; not necessarily successful, but possible. The Egyptian proponents of the Arab Spring desired freedom that they see provided and secured by democracy. When thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Cairo seeking the end of the residing repressive regime, their impact was far greater than their numbers.

Even as the Progressive Ideal and the Capitalist Model decline, the impetus towards freedom and democracy grows. There are more nations with democratic governments today than at any time in history. Democracy that grows from a grassroots base is an emergent model. The impact is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In an emergent context, one person’s actions can serve as a catalyst for thousands more.

In business, the emergent model has relevance. Following the centralized industrial model, when a business perceives itself as a structure of parts, processes, and outcomes, then it has difficulty valuing the relational connections that exist between people within the organization and the structure itself. Many businesses become siloed, department and sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company or become incapable of doing so. Turf battles ensue.

However, when a business sees itself as a network of interactive individuals, then the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The result is higher levels of communication, collaboration, and coordination.

While the Progressive Ideal and the Capitalist Model are products of the Age of Enlightenment, emergent networks, freedom, and democracy are even older ideas finding new ground and relevance.

In the traditional business organization, their relevance can be seen in two ways:

The freedom of the individual to take responsibility through their own initiative 

This perspective harkens back to the ancient Greek democracies where Greek farmers and small business owners participated in the governance and protection of their city-state. For businesses to replicate such an ethos requires a shift in perspective from employees as functionaries of the tasks of the company to a recognition of the potential contribution that each person offers. Each person leads out of their own personal initiative to give their best to the company.

The emergence of businesses as human communities of shared responsibility

The traditional organizational approach breaks down their structures into discrete parts of tasks and responsibilities, and staffs according to that conception of the organization. This traditional hierarchical approach worked in simpler times when businesses were less global, more homogeneous, and employees required less sophisticated training and used technology to advance their contributions beyond their individual position in the company.

Today, the environment of business has changed as the context becomes more complex and the pace of technological advancement and productivity accelerates. Agility and responsiveness are not embedded in the structure, but in human choice and in relationships that amplify those shared choices to make a difference. Successfully managing and surviving today’s challenging business environment is dependent on the freedom to take initiative and act in concert with others.

The result of a greater emphasis on relationship, interaction and personal initiative is a shift in culture. One only has to select any page in the Zappos.com Culture Book to see the influence of genuine community upon the attitudes and behaviors of the company’s workforce.

Three Keys to Organizational Change

There is no going back to the halcyon days of the 1990’s, or even the 1950’s.  Business organizations will not long succeed as mechanistic structures of human parts. Rather, they must emerge into communities of leaders where individual initiative, community, and freedom are fundamental aspects of the company’s culture.

The keys to the future, in my mind, are fairly simple.

  1. Leadership starts with individual employees’ own personal initiative to make a difference. 

Create space and grant permission for individual employees to take initiative to create new ways of working, new collaborative partnerships and solve problems before it reaches a crisis level.

  1. Relationships are central to every organizational endeavor. 

Create space for relationships to grow. The fruit will be better communication, more collaboration between people and groups, and a more efficient coordination of the work of the organization.

  1. Open the organization to new ideas about its mission. 

Identify the values that give purpose and meaning to the company’s mission.  Organize around those values that unite people around a common purpose. Give them the motivation to want to communicate better, collaborate more, and coordinate their work with others.  Openness is a form of freedom that releases the hidden and constrained potential that exists within every company.

We are now at the end of an era that is unprecedented in human history. The next era is beginning, and each of us has the privilege and the opportunity to share in its development. It requires adapting to new ideas, new ways of thinking, living and working. I welcome the change that is emerging because I find hope that a better world can be gained through its development.