Corporate Disobedience: A Follow-up to NPR Interview

By: | Posted in: Industrial Era / Social Era | Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - 8:58pm

Two days ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time with John Dankosky on his radio program, Where We Live (you can download a recording here). The conversation was wonderful and, as is always the case with conversation, there’s more that could be said. Without rehashing all the points we covered on the program, I’d like to offer something of a meta-observation that puts the conversation about GenY in perhaps a more compelling context than simply ‘how do we deal with the next generation of workers’:

One of my many ‘in-process’ writing projects is an interpretation of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience titled ‘Corporate Disobedience’.  In Thoreau’s original work, the first line is: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’.” Given the economy that is emerging and the velocity – and acceleration – of transformative change that will define our economic environment for decades to come, I believe strongly that ‘That organization is best which organizes the least’.
For the past few centuries, we have operated from the premise that Control and Predictability are THE standard for quality, that the litmus test for a true Professional is the degree to which they can create highly predictable outcomes within their area of Expertise. The whole point of our model of organization in the industrial era is to maximize the probability that the system – and all of it’s constituent parts – will produce exactly what is expected/predicted. All well and good. However, enter Gen Y. These folks were raised and live in a state of constant and complex interconnection. Hierarchy and control have not been the defining characteristics of their lives; choice, constant and real-time conversation, and, most importantly, access have defined their experience. Access to information, to each other, to technology, to markets, you name it. My 12 year-old daughter is more directly connected with the world and the people, ideas, and cultures in it than I even knew existed at her age. That’s not a product of ‘smarter’ or ‘better’, that’s a product of the flattening of hierarchies, of near-unlimited access. So why in the world would these folks enter the workplace and have the automatic relationship with Control and Predictability, with Hierarchy and Organization that we ‘business veterans’ have? Now, here’s the really interesting part: these Gen Yers, they’re actually your practice run for the world that’s emerging.

Imagine that you are a business manager in the 1960’s. Odds are very good that you are a white male and that all your peers are not only the same gender and race as you but also have a very similar world view. However, society is fundamentally changing all around you; there is an aggressively emerging expectation that women and minorities be treated the same way as you are, that they be given the same opportunities in business as you have. You could fight this and attempt to maintain the status quo, complaining that ‘these people don’t get how it is.’ Or you could attempt to adapt your behaviors, learning how to deal with more diverse individuals and diverse perspectives. Either way, the thing to look at is that these early experiences with diversity would have been your entry point into learning how to deal with the radical explosion of diversity that would mark the decades to follow….and if you didn’t learn to deal with the folks who were showing up in the workplace, you were unlikely to have been prepared to deal with what your broader cultural and social world was becoming. And so it is with Gen Y.

These folks aren’t inherently problematic…nor are they terribly special. They simply grew up ‘after the asteroid hit’ and are therefore well suited to live in a low-hierarchy, high-access world. And it’s important to note that many of us who are not of the Gen Y age group share the Gen Y world view. A caller to John’s radio program rightly pointed out that there are plenty of Gen Xers and Boomers who are quite comfortable in a connected world. But be clear about this: if you understand what we discussed during the radio program as being a discussion ONLY about how to deal with a specific generation of workers, you are missing the bigger picture. The worldview this generation represents is the worldview that will inform the economy that is emerging. Learn how to work with them and you’ll learn how to work in the 21st century.

The full opening passage of Corporate Disobedience looks like this:

I heartily accept the motto, “That organization is best which organizes least”; and I would like to see this acted on more aggressively and clearly by our corporations. Carried to it’s logical conclusion, it amounts to this, which also I believe–“That organization is best which organizes not at all“; and when human beings are prepared for it, that will be the kind of organizations which they will have.

Gen Y as a whole is certainly not prepared for an organization which ‘organizes not at all’….but some are, and most are much closer than those of us that grew up prior to the age of access. Our work is to learn with them how to live in a world that moves further and further away from the industrial model while, at the same time, educating them on those (relatively few yet quite critical) areas of our organization that truly do benefit from control and predictability.


P.S., my colleagues Nick Wedge and Ryan Levine were on with John as well and if you take the time to listen to them on the recording of the show you’ll hear why I have so much hope about the contribution this generation will make – and is already making – to our organizations and institutions.