Mar 12, 2015 | Leadership, People, Performance, Purpose

Last week, I attended The Future of Work Conference in Las Vegas. Author and futurist Jacob Morgan opened his Day 1 keynote with this story of Sissa and exponential change.

Once upon a time, there was a mathematician and inventor named Sissa who created chess. The ruler at the time was so impressed that he decided to reward Sissa with anything he wanted. Instead of money or land, Sissa asked for rice. He asked that the amount of rice be calculated by placing a single grain on the first square of the chessboard, and then to double the amount of rice for every square through the final, 64th square. The ruler was puzzled by the request but agreed. He ordered his servants to figure how much rice was owed, and to pay Sissa his reward.

As it turns out, Sissa’s request could not be filled because there was not enough rice in the kingdom. In fact, the amount rice needed would tower over Mt. Everest. The total was 1,000 times the present day global production of rice. That’s the power of exponential change.

“I tell you that story,” Morgan said, “because of the prediction by Ray Kurzweil, that today we are standing on the 32nd square of the chessboard in terms of technological change.”  Because the world is now hyper-connected, the speed of change has exponential power. Morgan closed with this challenge, “At the end of the day, if your organization doesn’t think about and plan for the future of work, then your organization will have no future.”

Fortunately, that challenge is being met by some of the country’s leading businesses. Companies like Herman Miller, The Motley Fool, and SAP understand that the today’s hierarchical cultures are incapable of shifting fast enough to keep pace with change.  These companies are creating transformational cultures that are not just more adaptable to change, but better for the people who work in them.  Transformational cultures require transformational leadership – or leaders who can align people, purpose, and performance.

Here are some examples of how these companies are future-proofing their cultures:

  1. People – It’s no accident that The Motley Fool is No. 1 for the second year in a row on Glassdoor’s list of small and medium Best Places to Work (2015). The Motley’s Fool’s 77% employee engagement rate has been won over time as the company has tested trust-based policies like Open PTO and Pick Your Own Device. Simply put, they treat people like adults who can be responsible for their choices. According to Kara Chambers, VP of Talent Strategy, their secret is “recruit people you trust and then assume they want to do great work. If our people are aligned with purpose the rest falls into place. ” The company is proving that treating people as human beings instead of human resources is a successful business model.
  2. Purpose – “Herman Miller invented the cubicle,” confesses Tracy Brower, Director of Human Dynamics. “But what was meant to create free-flowing, autonomous environments was Dilbertized in the name of efficiency,” Brower says. The company has come a long way in redeeming itself by researching and testing ways to restore the human spirit that cubicle farms destroyed. Among their findings is that employees need to connect with purpose; to be a part of something greater. Purpose engages the heart and fulfills the desire to make a meaningful difference. Herman Miller employees have evolved past the mindset of simply going to work to make a living – they work to make a difference.
  3. Performance – Over 70% of the world’s transaction revenue touches an SAP system. That kind of reach gives SAP the big data to understand the drivers of performance. Their findings show that the traditional employment model, which slots people in defined jobs and assigns managers to monitor them, leads to disengagement. High performance organizations are shifting toward a flexible model of teamwork and collaboration. While most organizations are not ready for Zappos’ free-styling holacracy model, they can begin by looking at employee incentives. If employees are rewarded for individual performance alone, teamwork and collaboration are not likely to thrive. Considering SAP’s findings that “companies with a highly engaged workforce experience a 19% growth in operating income over a 12-month period,” collaboration and teamwork are worth trying.

Organizations were not created with the idea of change and adaptability in mind. But in a world of accelerated change, we are at an inflection point. The good news is, you don’t need big business resources to treat employees with trust, engage their hearts as well as their minds, and reward them for teamwork. These are things you can start doing today.

Question:  What hierarchical practices have been grandfathered into your business?  Please leave a comment below.

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