The story of the last century was about becoming big.
Believing that bigger is better, big companies led to big monopolies. And big bureaucracies to preserve those monopolies.
In the process of becoming big, those companies lost their agility. They lost their ability to innovate.
Instead, they elected to block potential disrupters from the market rather than be forced to change themselves. They litigated new competitors out of existence with the help of compromised legislators and a public too uninformed to care or understand.
Big companies got so big and became so concerned with self-preservation above any other social interest that the term “too big to fail” entered the lexicon.
Let’s think about that for a moment.
What the “too big to fail” company is saying is that their interests trump the customers that pay them, the employees that work for them, and even society as a whole.
This is cultural neurosis.
The 2008 financial crisis was the logical endpoint to a century of companies insisting on bigness as the end goal of business.
A few well-funded, well-connected, powerful bureaucracies became so large, rigid, and entrenched that they were able to take the entire system to the brink of collapse.
Bigger isn’t better.
The story of the next century must be different.
Is Bigger Better? The Case for Small Teams
Profit–and the future–belongs to those firms like Apple, Amazon and Salesforce, that delight their customers. Yet a firm run on traditional 20th management principles is as capable of delighting its customers as a bulldozer is capable of ice-skating. It was never designed to do that. It is constitutionally incapable of it.
The story of the next century will be agile, lean, and nimble groups beating giant, slothful, and inhuman organizations.
These agile people will come together to create the future on a project-by-project basis. Those groups can then break apart when they are done, to work on the next big thing. All without flatlining the economy.
The economic turmoil we’re experiencing today is the birth pangs of a great economic change. If the United States wants to keep playing a 20th century game in this new age, then we will quickly become a third world country as the rise of the rest takes center stage.
Instead, we have to embrace a new kind of economy.
A Marketplace of Creators
The story of commerce is a circle.
First, artisans sold unique, hand-crafted articles directly to customers. The relationship between creator and fan was tight, one-to-one.
In the industrial age, an army of middlemen, from financiers to gatekeepers to distributors, came into being to facilitate the movement of mass market wares to consumers. The connection between creator and fan was many steps removed.
In the internet age, the cycle comes full circle. Authors, artists, and creators have direct access to their audience again. You can know instantly what’s working or not with the tools of the web.
The industrial age dinosaurs were optimized for a world where interactions between companies and consumers were indirect and always mediated by an external force.
Too bad for them. Like Steve Denning says, the future is about delighting people. And the dinosaurs don’t do that well.
Instead, agile organizations must take their place.
Here are some important features of the agile organizations of the future:
- Flat structure
Each member of the agile team contributes where she can best add value. She answers to no manager. Instead, she’s held accountable to her project groups, and regularly meets with a handful of hand-picked mentors.
The truth is thousands of employees are hiding in the Fortune 500 right now. They are hiding in plain sight. They do the bare minimum to keep from getting fired. They skate by on past accomplishments. The project-based future requires transparency into what team members are doing. You can’t hide what you’re working on in Asana.
- Failure is encouraged
Great companies make mistakes. Sometimes very costly mistakes. Team members who consistently take action where others succumb to analysis paralysis will ultimately be the employees who take the organization to new heights.
- Location independent
The reality of anywhere, anytime work will liberate most workers from forced co-location. While agile methods will always revolve around interaction, the videoconferencing and collaboration tools we have today will only keep getting better. I envision a world where geographically diverse teams can feel like they’re in the same room with wall-sized retina displays and walk-anywhere microphones.
The unsung benefit of location independence? Your personal life doesn’t need to take a backseat. You can be close to loved ones, travel to doctor’s appointments, and pick up your kids from work. The downside of anywhere, anytime work is the walls between work and life will crumble. The upside of anywhere, anytime work is the walls between work and life will crumble.
Bigger isn’t Better
The future for workers is bright. The right-size company with the right-size product will win the 21st century marketplace. And almost by definition, those agile organizations will be better suited for human beings to work in.
But first we have to shake off the “bigger is better” delusion.
Until then, unemployment will stay high, more layoffs and budget cuts will occur. Fewer people will be asked to shoulder all the work of their departed colleagues or get fired themselves, with less paths to advancement and more pay freezes.
How much more can we take before we decide to make a clean break from the Fortune 500 and their ilk? How much indignity can we collectively suffer before deciding to reclaim our time and energy?
Some of the tomorrow people are already trailblazing this new future of work.
If you are reading this, then you have already taken a step in this journey.
Please share this with your friends or coworkers. Thanks for reading.
Image by seier+seier.