The Transformation Devours Its Children

COVID-19 is a touchstone for agility and new work. The crisis reveals the true culture of the organization unvarnished. Quite a few beanbags and foosball tables now turn out to be “lipstick on the pig”, a naive cargo cult at best and the deliberate deception of a Potemkin village at worst.

It could have been so wonderful. Agility could have been used to full advantage in the Corona crisis. More VUCA simply isn’t possible. The crisis could have become a success story. Agility and self-organization on a solid basis of trust in people and their willingness to perform, and leadership on a par with one another, could have emerged as the decisive success factors. The crisis would then have been a unique opportunity to finally rethink work, to make it more human(e).

The crisis acts like a burning glass and sometimes like X-ray. It makes visible what was previously easy to overlook or hidden. These could have been the advantages of agility and new work, i.e., an increased adaptability with dedicated employees who act independently in the sense of the whole, guided by a common purpose. Many protagonists of transformations in these directions hoped to see exactly that as confirmation and affirmation of the path they had chosen.

COVID-19 is a touchstone for agility and new work. At the beginning by showing or not showing the hoped for increased adaptability and resilience of the organization. And recently, by showing the degree of trust in people and their ability to organize themselves through the way they can or must return to the office.

You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.

Barack Obama

In many traditional hierarchical organizations the longed-for revolution unfortunately turned out to be an illusion upon closer inspection. The crisis reveals the true culture of the organization unvarnished. Quite a few beanbags and foosball tables now turn out to be “lipstick on the pig“, a naive cargo cult at best and the deliberate deception of a Potemkin village at worst.

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Richard Feynman, 1974

Before the crisis, there was a spark of hope that offices that don’t look like sterile hospitals and sneakers instead of ties could be signs of change. The danger of the cargo cult was of course known to all protagonists of the transformation, but on good days it could be generously overlooked or misinterpreted. Not anymore. And this cognitive dissonance, coupled with a lack of perspective, now causes many protagonists to despair. The transformation devours its children.

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