Successful collaboration in the age of knowledge work, especially in agile organisations with their high degree of self-organisation and self-responsibility, depends to a large extent on the assumptions about human nature. Douglas McGregor stated as early as 1963 in his seminal book “The Human Side of Enterprise” that we should no longer regard people as lazy and reluctant to work (Theory X), but as intrinsically motivated and willing to perform (Theory Y). McGregor clearly builds on the work of Abraham Maslow, which meanwhile has become an indispensable part of management literature in the form of the hierarchy of needs named after him. However, the representation in the form of a pyramid is a misleading interpretation that Maslow did not come up with himself.
Agility requires orientation. It’s exactly this alignment that enables effective autonomy and decentralized decisions, which make agile organizations so adaptable. But agility also requires common standards and conventions to ensure that effective cooperation of autonomous teams. So the question is not whether such standards are required in agile organizations, but rather how they are created and enforced.
The yearning for a new and better form of respectful and thereby profitable cooperation between people is greater than ever. Industrialization and Taylorism have transformed humans into resources. Initially only the labour of the unskilled worker was in demand, and Henry Ford even complained that he always got also a brain with every pair of hands. Today, in the age of knowledge work, the demands upon and roles of the knowledge worker have differentiated in many ways. However, the basic principle of treating organizations as machines and using employees as cogs mostly remained the same. Man is still a means. I have a dream that people, with all their potential, will really be at the core of organizations. And that this really makes the difference in digitalization.
In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time a rapidly growing number of people have choices. Peter F. Drucker concludes this insight with the somewhat sobering statement that most of us are completely unprepared for this challenge. The more possibilities there are, the more difficult the decision becomes, because every yes automatically means many no. That’s why no is not only the most difficult word of our time, but also the most important word to keep the focus on both the personal and the organizational level.
Agility hinges on the prevailing assumptions about human nature in the organization. Wherever people are generally distrusted and where the belief prevails that people must be motivated to perform, agility will not thrive, but only fear, cargo cult and label fraud. The problem is not people, but demotivating and dehumanizing structures and processes.