2018 in Review: It’s the System

So, 2018 has been a crazy year for many reasons. Deepening political collapse across much of the developed world, economic ups and downs leaving stock markets down on the year as a whole and seemingly heading into our next downturn, climate-related issues such as the raging California wildfires, further #MeToo developments particularly in the context of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, the tech reckoning faced by Facebook in particular and the sector in general, and more personal shifts for us at Workio moving from relatively safe employed status to setting off on our bumpy road to unlocking the power of company culture.

In trying to parse all this craziness, where do we begin? Are these discrete issues? Are there common themes? Or are they in fact facets of some singular phenomenon?

At the risk of overreach, I’d like to put forward a case for the latter. What is the connective tissue between the politics, economics, tech and personal upheaval for us all over the last 12 months?

It’s the system (stupid).

Starting with the macro and coming to the micro later, from all I have read and heard and seen this year, I am convinced that the political dislocation we’re witnessing between the governed and the governing classes is that those in power are stuck in a mode of thinking more suited to 20th century manufacturing plants than 21st century society.

Politicians at large, particularly those who have been in positions of power for a long time, are still in the mindset that for any problem there is a lever that can be pulled to fix it. The problem as they see it is finding the right lever to pull, and pulling it with the right amount of force (not too lightly, not too forcefully).

Even worse, this view from politicians both reflects and has encouraged the same view in the populace at large. Simple solutions to complex problems are appealing yet do not exist.

This belief in the one right lever led to Donald Trump’s election in the US as Hillary Clinton tried to find the perfectly triangulated policy platform rather than real emotional resonance. It led to the Brexit referendum result and ensuing paralysis of the political system in the UK as the Remain camp tried to find the right rational argument to counter a primal howl of protest.

It has led to the continuing fallout from these spasms of popular revolt through demonisation of immigrants, massive US corporate tax cuts (where suddenly the deficit doesn’t matter to conservatives), a far too simplistic view of the UK’s options relating to Brexit, and the almost complete lack of engagement on the massive systemic problem of climate change.

In tech, the one right lever problem is what has doomed Facebook to a never-ending ‘we’re sorry, we’ll do better’ executive parade in response to each example of their fundamental disregard for data security, privacy, or the societal impact of their ethically bankrupt chase after as many ad dollars as possible. It turns out moving fast can break a lot of things, including democracy and society itself.

Tech’s refusal to acknowledge its position as a moral agent in society, notable across Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter, is part of our broader economic model, at least in the US and UK in particular. Companies again both reflect and reinforce the system in which they operate, which in Anglo-Saxon, Friedmanite capitalism means maximising shareholder value and fuck everything else.

Google’s problems in dealing with each senior executive’s sexual misconduct as a ‘bad apple’ issue that could be solved by giving large payouts and quietly moving the individuals on is laughably simplistic. If you have that many bad apples, maybe check out the barrel you’re storing them in and do something about that?

Amazon’s farcical and cynical ‘contest’ for their HQ2(s) in the US is just another example of maximising shareholder value at the expense of civil society. How many tax breaks does one of the most valuable companies in the world really need?

Amazon’s begging tour around the States neatly dovetails the economic myopia and tech cynicism with political ‘one right lever’ thinking. Those cities who thought one Amazon office would make them a tech ecosystem are lucky to have escaped the tax giveaways and strain on their infrastructure that an HQ2 would have created. 

This simplistic, mechanistic way of thinking across politics, economics and tech is clearly inadequate for our times. The binary yes/no, on/off ideas in politics have led to the breakdown of the complex systems which have always existed in society and are now being better understood in certain areas.

I have read a number of books this year which set out a more progressive way of understanding the world and how to change it. Doughnut Economics by Kate RaworthThe Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, and Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neill all cogently set out a way of thinking about systems which acknowledges the complexity of economics, politics and technology with strategies and ideas for effecting change in those systems. The key is to understand the interconnectedness of people, ideas and power structures, and to understand that there is never a single lever to pull to get a specific result.

This is where we get to the relative micro of Workio. Our view is that company culture is a system, and like other systems cannot be understood atomistically. We must take a holistic view in order to fully understand company culture, and to make changes that will create a positive difference. In taking this view, we are at the vanguard of systems thinking in people science as applied to real-world organisations, but at the same time it leaves us out in front of some of our potential clients’ worldview.

In the course of the year, we’ve been forced to examine, re-examine and examine again our approach and how we turn it into real value for customers. We’ve had some real successes but also many challenges in communicating the value of our approach and the many ways it can be utilised across hiring, management, diversity, change management, M&A and more.

So we head into 2019 with a new focus on working with consultants to help them understand culture holistically with their clients, and drive performance through unlocking the potential of culture in organisations. We’re also acting as company culture consultants ourselves, using our proven methodology and model to understand and positively impact company culture.

We’re encouraged by some green shoots of change in the gardens of democracy, economics and tech. The 2018 US elections brought some much-needed new players into the political system with more advanced mental models of the world. The Green New Deal holds out hope for both politics and the environment.

Even as the UK political establishment implausibly staggers on with no-deal planning (at time of writing, at least), the People’s Vote movement gains ground and will hopefully enable a restoration of at least some sanity to British public life. Admittedly, this is a long shot.

Economically, the work of Kate Raworth, Mariana Mazzucato and others gives hope for a more advanced understanding of markets, innovation and other economic mechanisms.

The campaigning zeal of the #MeToo movement continues to build momentum from justified rage, some of which has been realised in US election results, and in recent Australian political developments.

The tech backlash is real, sustained, and is not being placated by the platitudes of furrow-browed executives pleading their powerlessness to control the edifices they have built. As a society we are no longer letting this particular group of rich and powerful individuals off the hook so easily after the point to the lever they plan to pull to fix everything.

It does feel like as a society we’re starting to understand, perhaps subconsciously, that deep problems can only be solved by addressing the systems that give rise to them.

It’s our job at Workio, with our consulting partners, to help organisations do this as they look inward – to understand their culture as a system and act on it with much more sophistication than an annual review process or promotions and payrises.

We’ve got an exciting start planned for 2019 – stay tuned to find out how we’re going to make good on our vital mission to unlock the power of culture to drive company performance.

We’ll be showing you how systems can be understood, and changed for the better. We hope you’ll join us on that journey.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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