Jonathan Phillips reviews the Book of the Month for August: "Brave New Work" by Aaron Dignan.
If insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results then Aaron Dignan is here to help guide us through the proverbial madhouse that is the modern workplace, into a brighter future and away from our own damaging behaviour.
The best bit about Dignan’s writing is that he doesn’t hold back: changing for the future won’t be easy, he warns. Oh, and he doesn’t have all the answers either. I found it deeply refreshing to read him say this - so many future-of-work-cum-business-books skip over the truth.
Thankfully, there is much more to it as well. Along with its honesty, it couples practicality and detail, as well as appealing to a wider human need that:
‘This can’t be our best… we’re capable of more.’
It’s a sentiment that the vast majority of professionals can identify with, probably more frequently than they would care to admit to themselves. The book is divided into three sections: “The Future of Work”, “The Operating System” and “The Change”, before ending with an enticingly entitled epilogue: “What Dreams May Come”.
Repeating mistakes is where Dignan draws the inspiration that underpins his argument. This is the notion that business management practices, unlike almost everything else, have changed their approach very little since their inception. He illustrates this with an organisational chart from Union Pacific and South Pacific Systems dated 1910, which would look at home on most 2019 company intranet pages.
But perhaps the most striking is a twelve point document that reads initially as a fairly withering and on point assessment of modern workplace practices (i.e. ‘refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration”’ or ‘haggle over precise wording of communications, minutes, resolutions) but is then revealed to be lifted from a 1944 field manual for CIA operatives to disrupt infiltrated organisations.
His message: we’re sabotaging ourselves, and we can’t stop doing it.
Or can we? The second part of the book lays down the twelve key parts of any organisation’s operating system, covering off areas such as “Purpose: How We Orient and Steer”, “Authority: How We Share Power and Make Decisions” and “Innovation: How We Learn and Evolve”. Individually, none of these are of any surprise but, as a collective OS, this section provides an effective road map to an improved culture.
Most books would stop here, but Dignan takes this one step further with the third and final section. To achieve real change Dignan highlights six key areas that need addressing: Commitment, Boundaries, Priming, Looping, Criticality and Continuity. There are lots of practical suggestions to help deep dive into these. For example, the checklist around ‘sensing tensions’ is particularly thorough.
Throughout the book, and especially towards the end, the message of hope rings clear, and Dignan covers off some great innovations that are breaking the mould in this way (for example, Eric Ries’ development of the Long Term Stock Exchange). Even though he isn’t shy about reminding the reader of the significant effort to get there, he makes a formidable case that the promised land of Brave New Work is worth fighting for.