Change. Chapter 4: A 600-year adventure

The only problem I have with the Lord of the Rings Director’s Extended Edition is that it is too short.

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Introduction to the chapter

All my life I have loved epic stories that cover centuries of time with characters woven into the tapestry of the narrative. Perhaps that is why I was compelled to create this epic history of organisational change. A 600-year tale of how we have grown ourselves to cope with the ever-increasing complexity of our civilisations and inner thoughts.

Like many good epics, this is a trilogy. It is a story of the complexity of human consciousness and how it results in organisational change.

This diagram is a simplified view of the elements in each age.

In each age watch out for the main drivers that lead to organisational change. These typically happen in order:

1. Philosophical belief changes

2. Technological advancement

3. Increase in available energy

4. Increase in economic complexity, speed, and number of players

Only when all 4 elements are in place does the mainstream organisational shift start to happen.

Gather round, get comfortable, and I will begin…

The three ages of consciousness (or organisational change periods)

Age of Dependency

The pitch of the scream from the baby (Chester) in the next room cut through our conversation and as parents we rocketed towards the sound without any cognitive process or finishing our sentence. A deep hardwired reaction governed the motion of our bodies.

Prioritisation and efficiency worked as one to deliver me into the most effective place to assess the situation and decide the next action. Nothing else mattered.

As soon as I entered the room, I could see nothing was seriously wrong. The older toddler (Thomas) aged 4, had taken the baby’s rattle and smacked Chester on the head with it. The baby was screaming with no visible damage.

With heart rate pounding and with a lot of relief we comforted the baby and addressed the behaviour of the toddler. Probably a familiar scenario in any household with two little boys.

We can think of humanity and our progression to ever more complex forms of thinking like the growth of a single person. Around the 14th and 15th century we were like my toddler Thomas.

Humanity as a single person

If we liken mankind’s growth to the maturity of a single person then the Age of dependency is the age of the toddler. The toddler, from their own perspective, is always right, and they get what they want or they throw a tantrum.

Toddlers are dependent on their adult carers to survive. They do think for themselves but in an extremely limited way. They are not stupid; they just have not yet developed the cognitive ability to reason or the realisation they are separate from their mothers.

I once asked the 4-year-old Chester, now grown from the baby in this story, if he was the same or separate person than his mom and he said that he was the same person. I asked him again last week as a 9-year-old, and the answer was totally different. “Of course we are not the same,” he said, “what a strange thing to ask”.

Collectively we were like this toddler in the Age of Dependency, our ability for complex thinking was not the same as it is now.

The Age of Dependency starts a few thousand years ago and ends between 1500 CE and 1700 CE. We can summarise it as when human beings live a life that is dependent on and dictated by the situation in which they were born. Most human beings of this age were told what to believe and how to live. For example, if you were born a carpenter’s son, you would be a carpenter and so would your children and so would their children.

Things moved fairly slowly compared to today’s pace. From the agricultural revolution (many thousands of years ago) to the Industrial Revolution; the population, technology, and the economy grew much slower than today.

Power for working was derived from manual labour, wind or water power. As better farming tools improved efficiency, more energy became available, and the population grew. However, this was only a tiny increase compared with the shift in available energy and the resulting population growth of the industrial revolution.

The primary factor for population size is available energy. Secondary factors are technical advancements, the standard of living, food storage, healthcare, cultural and political beliefs, and general economic stability; all of which have a bearing on how many children a family may have and how many survive. Simplistically put, population growth is the difference between birth and death rates. During the age of dependency, birth and death rates remained fairly constant.

What really surprised me about the Age of Dependency, was that in Europe, parts of Africa and in Asia, between 50% to 85% of the population were serfs, or what we would now call slaves. This was an age of almost zero social mobility.

In later ages, social mobility became a vital factor to create a dynamic and innovative society.

Philosophy, belief system and identity

In the Age of Dependency, we obtained our belief on what was right and wrong from the same type of place all over the world. Even though we had different gods and different religions, we believed that the truth dictated by religion was absolute. No matter which religion people were given truth through either scriptures or the holy books and if you didn’t adhere to that truth or behave in a certain way you would be ostracized, killed, or tortured.

The social fabric or culture was held in place by the hierarchical structures that represented the belief systems of the time. In England, as in many places in Europe, this was that God was absolute and the monarchy was ordained to rule by God. The church and state were effectively one, entwined and empowering each other. Just like our toddler, the people of the age did not work things out for themselves, they were told what was true and what was not.

These structures created physical safety and met the economic needs of the leadership and created enough fear and just enough wealth and food to stop rebellion (for most of the time).

Technological advancements

During the last part of the Age of Dependency, around the 1500s the technology of the age began to evolve at a faster pace. Significant enablers around shipping, navigation and weaponry, led to the ability to load cannons onto ships and to navigate across the sea.

For the first time in human history, we were able to navigate both longitude and latitude, as well as create boats strong enough to brave the sea in stormy weather.

This enabled Europeans to expand their empires and to dominate and take over other countries. The move to globalisation and all the complexity that brought had begun.

Economics

Most people were owned with the land that they worked on. Local culture and law and order were governed by Manorial politics, where the manor house and lords owned everything and decided the fate of others at their own court. If they wanted to sell a bit of land they would sell the people with it. This is the Age of Dependency where the people were dependent upon their station and the land upon where they were born.

Queen Elizabeth the First, heralded in the first golden age of England. One of the key drivers of this age was the shift from manorial to mercantile economics, or in other words, from localised principalities and lords of the manors to countries and the monarchy. This allowed the crown to have full centralised control of all trade between England and any other country. The first corporation ever created was the East India Company and it was founded as an extension of the crown’s authority.

Organisation structure

The East India Company was based in London and was very different than the corporations of today. The people who ran this corporation had the political power and military might to change the law in its favour, deploy armies to enforce that law, and to extract, steal, or use slavery, or any other means possible, to enrich the crown. Today’s politicians look positively saintly compared with what they used to get up to a few hundred years ago!

The corporation's structure mirrored who we were as a people and used the technology of the age to further the aims of the leadership. Organisations were built in the image we had of ourselves.

Changing from dependency to independency

Every toddler must grow up, no matter how cute and cuddly they are. As toddlers grow in physical size, they also grow mentally and emotionally. Toddlers grow into little children and they become less dependent on Mum and Dad. Once children get old enough to start forming opinions, they even start to question whether Mum and Dad really do know best.

“I don’t want to pick my coat from the floor, I’m not your slave” shouted my 12-year-old son.

Humanity as a single person

Our person who represents the journey of all people-kind is now around 12–14 years old. They start to question whether Mummy or Daddy really is perfect or not, and through reason, they start to find separation from their parents due to disillusionment and the need for autonomy. They start to discover truth for themselves.

Age of Independence

The Age of Independence begun around 1600 and is still the prevalent age we are in today. It overlaps with the Age of Dependency for a hundred years or so and overlaps with the Age of Interdependency today.

An overlap is where the mainstream population operates from both modes of consciousness.

Philosophy, belief system, and identity

The Age of Independence begins with a significant philosophical break around the beginning of the 1600s. The breakthrough was a shift in consciousness. I really want to labour this point; it was not external; it was an internal shift in consciousness that changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us. This conscious shift is called the Age of Enlightenment, Renaissance, or Scientific Revolution.

This begun around the time of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Rene Descartes (1596–1650) with “I think therefore I am.” This was the first time in human history where we thought of ourselves as autonomous individuals with an existential gap between us and God, rather than parts of an un-alterable system designed around His plan.

The new religion, the one with no God, where we are just the sum of our hormones, DNA, and some very lucky chemical reactions, is of course Science. Not to say that religion and science are not compatible of course, it is just how we discover the truth that has changed.

Instead of the absolute truth dictated by scripture, we entered the age of scientific discovery. We still saw the truth as absolute, but now we could discover it for ourselves rather than being told. This meant we could learn for ourselves, and anyone could do it, not just the Clerics and Holy men.

It is these two factors that mark the Age of Independence; believing we are individuals and that truth is discoverable by us.

Technological advancements

Three other events created the precursor for the next major shift in the way we organise ourselves. They are so important, that any timeline of business would be completely amiss if they are not mentioned.

They are the theory of evolution, the industrial revolution, and the definition of capitalism. Arguably, the industrial revolution might never have happened if it were not for private investment from capitalism allowing innovation for invention.

The industrial revolution provided a new source of energy for work that was orders of magnitude more powerful than anything that had gone before. As described above, a key factor in population size is available energy and as we can see from the population graph, the global population increased geometrically creating the need for a much more complex system of organisation.

Capitalism and the drive for personal wealth created two classes of people; investors and consumers. This has not changed for 250 years. In England, we often talk about lower, middle, and upper class, but in my opinion; there are just two classes. We are either investors or consumers, and the decision is ours to make. It is this decision that defines one’s wealth over the long term and gives us the ability for social mobility and independence.

The theory of evolution is important because it gave us a model of how the natural world changes over time based on those species that are best suited to their environment. The model assumes finite resources where species fight over food in order to stay on top. This finite resource model and staying at the top of the food chain has dominated capitalist culture and has created the driving force behind competition and free-market economics. As we will explore later, the mindset behind the limited resource model belongs firmly in the Age of Independence and is challenged later when we move to Interdependent system thinking.

Economics

As trade increased due to colonialism over the first 200 years of the Age of Independence and became global in nature, the ability to control from a centralized crown or sovereign state became too complex and slow. There were too many arguments over who could trade, who couldn’t trade, and this led to wars around freedom of trade, peace treaties, and trade treaties. Eventually, the organisational systems that we used to make these trades needed to become more autonomous so that decision making could become more distributed. Traders could be treated as individual autonomous entities in a web of increasingly complex trades.

The reason for this change was not a conscious existential driver, but economics. Specifically, the challenges arising from the increase in number of trading partners, numbers of goods and the increase in complexity of both. As complexity increases in human systems, decentralised decision making becomes necessary and so we moved from state-controlled economics to private legal entities making decisions regulated by the state.

It was the Dutch who pioneered much of what we know today as the stock market. The stock market has its present-day origins in the 16th century, but it was not until the 17th and 18th century that significant financial inventions around managed debt, allowed the complexity of investment and borrowing that gave the investment needed to fuel the new steam-powered world.

Organisation structure

The technological advancements of the steam age, coupled with advanced economics of capitalism, and the belief that we as individuals need to grow and adapt to continue to survive fuelled the need to change the laws and structures of our organisations.

The state-owned corporations of the Age of Dependency did not offer the flexibility and swiftness required to make the most of the continuing global expansion, technical innovations, and new economics.

It was necessary for the nature of business to change.

Through a series of acts in British Law during the 1800s organizations changed from state-run businesses to organisations that could act like individuals. The act meant that organisations became legal entities in their own right and could have and breach human rights.

The need to model our organisations on the beliefs we hold about ourselves seems to be constant throughout the ages. It had taken a few hundred years for us to reshape organisations to be in our own image. From state-run, all-powerful, always right entities from the Age of Dependence, to individual entities with rights and responsibilities in the Age of Independence.

Wider societal impact

Another interesting effect in the change of the age was that the behaviours that fuelled the previous age became unacceptable in the next age. For example, the acceptance of institutional slavery became totally unacceptable as we considered ourselves individuals. Imagine if The South had won the war in America and slavery had continued, can we really believe it would exist today? Would the rest of the world still stand by and trade openly with a slave-based US? Highly unlikely. The world consciousness had changed.

Changing from dependency to independency

Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more

– Puff the magic dragon

Life is a wondrously cruel and beautiful gift. There is no joy greater than seeing your own children grow into decent, happy, questioning adults with a healthy disrespect for authority! At the same time there is no parent alive who does not lament the passing of childhood.

Proud I am of their social skills and happy laughter with friends but also sad that the time of playing games with Dad is ending. Gracefully we must accept the passing of time and all that goes with it.

Teenagers are mostly social creatures. Friends and relationships are the most important things. Teenagers start to question the morality of the world and if they are lucky, and their basic needs are met, want to fight the good fight and make the world a better place.

Humanity as a single person

If we liken mankind’s growth to the maturity of a single person then the Age of Interdependency is the age of the teenager. The teenager looks to others to define a sense of self and their reality. It is the age where we discover our emotions are real and ok to bring with us to work. This is the age of collective subjective reality.

Age of Interdependence

“You are all individuals!” — “I’m not!” — Life of Brian

Philosophy, belief system and identity

The Age of Interdependence might be considered to have started with the early constructivist philosophers such as David Hume (~1718) and Immanuel Kant (~1781). However, constructivism and scepticism remained dormant with no practical application until psychologists started reviewing First World War victims of ‘Shell Shock’ (now known as PTSD) and examining their individual internal world views.

The philosophy began to impact organisational dynamics around the end of the Second World War based on the respect for people that entered the workplace from Japan and Peter Drucker’s work on organisational philosophy and Deming’s work on the organisation as a whole system.

The Age of Interdependency therefore starts in the 1950s.

Constructivism and scepticism

What I am referring to with constructivism and scepticism is the move away from the belief that science has all the answers, and most importantly, that there is a discoverable absolute reality. In constructivist terms, science is a ‘big narrative’. There are lots of big narratives we subscribe to, and sceptics and constructivists think that we create our own subjective narratives rather than subscribe to a single true narrative.

Constructivists believe that reality is not knowable and that we all construct our versions of reality from the information/data that we have. We get this data from social interactions (whether virtual or in person) and form our beliefs, values, and decision-making based upon this.

This is a big shift from the concept that we can discover everything through science and come up with the one right answer.

What is relevant for us on our adventure to discover ways to structure and run our organisations is that there is no one truth. There is no one narrative that rules all others. Every one of us builds or ‘constructs’ our reality based on the available information to hand. Working together to solve problems and thrive in today’s complex world requires us to continually adjust and emerge what is.

This is a fundamental shift from the Age of Independence where we are free to discover the one truth. In the Age of Interdependence, we are combining multiple truths to create a new partial collective truth that gives us a chance to motivate, collaborate, and succeed.

It has a fundamental impact on behaviour because it makes everyone’s truth relevant and important, not only those with privilege. The requires a deep inner shift from the expert mindset that values facts and data as the primary source of information, to the constructionist mindset that says facts and data are just one voice of the system or organisation.

Parallels with other models

For those of you who are familiar with the Integral Model from Ken Wilber, it is largely balancing the quadrants and finding a much deeper skillset in the WE space. The best book on the integral model and organisational change is the recent book by my good friend Michael Spayd called Agile Transformation.

For those of you who are familiar with the application of spiral dynamics made popular in the book ‘Reinventing Organisations’ by Frederic Laloux it is partly learning how to adjust ourselves so that Teal and more advanced organisational consciousness can arise.

For those who are familiar with Large Scale Scrum and the work of Craig Larman and Bas Vodde, then is about creating an environment where these organisational optimisation techniques can be readily assimilated, owned, and run as experiments for change.

If you are familiar with Torbert’s work on Action Logics it is moving beyond the ‘facts against world’, ‘Expert’ or ‘Scientist’ mindsets to higher states of operating where we can be comfortable and thrive with multiple world views at the same time and know that everyone is right but only partially.

Why the word interdependence?

As complexity has increased, we once again find we are dependent on each other to solve our problems, but the difference is that now we have a choice about how we co-operate and how we see the truth. We are both independent and also dependent.

For example, our ability to choose what we eat (independence) is juxtaposed to our completely dependent state on large global supply chains for our food to actually get to us.

Another example is climate change. We are individually free to burn fossil fuels, however, this large-scale individualistic behaviour causes problems that can only be solved together. We find once again through our independence we are dependent on each other for our future survival. Everyone has to change the way they are being independent to survive. We are dependent on lots of individual choices.

As we start to see ourselves as locked into a complex web of interdependent systems and people, we can either feel hopeless and out of control, or we can shift our consciousness so that we balance the needs of individuals with the needs of the system in which we live. This is necessary for organisational culture change to enable customer driven product and service delivery as much as it is for survival on this planet.

In order for us to make this shift, we must drop our egocentric view of our identity based upon status, capability, and job role, and instead, embrace the equality of each person’s needs and opinions, include every voice, and find a way to take action collectively.

We optimise to the scope of our identity

In the chapter on organisational structures, we will revisit identity and show that it is identity that drives structure and process decisions. Often in the agile world we talk about local or sub-optimisation. This will continue to happen for as long as our identities remain small. More on this later.

Technological advancement

In the late 60s and 70s, we invented the internet. Network connection significantly speeded up the ability for us to swap data. This technical enabler not only sped up business and created complexity never seen before but was an enabler for us to change our beliefs about how we create truth.

To understand what I mean we can draw a parallel with the mechanical world. Newtonian mechanics was perfectly adequate right up until the time we needed to send satellites into the sky, and then it was no longer accurate enough. We needed Einsteinian mechanics and relativity. This forced us to use more updated and more accurate views of mechanics.

Until the internet became the prevalent method of data transference, the volume of data absorption didn’t require us to view reality as subjective. The volume of data and the speed at which data is currently being created and consumed forces us to become subjective multi-worldview thinkers if we are to be able to collaborate and co-create with lots of people in our workplaces.

This is particularly important when we are shifting an organisations culture to enable the solving of complex problems. People cannot be told how to work in a complex environment because the complexity occurs at the point of work and not in the management chain. The best people to work out how they should work are the people doing the work.

Practically speaking, this means we need techniques that allow all the different viewpoints to be taken into account whilst at the same time considering the larger system in which individuals have no control over. Rolling out change programs is a nice simple solution that doesn’t work.

Organisational change, like climate change, requires an Interdependent consciousness and a shift in identity.

Economics

The technical enabler of the internet gave us an economic driver through things like automated trading, digitalization of the stock markets, eCommerce, and now cryptocurrencies. The economic trading places of the world have significantly increased in complexity and the speed in the flow of money, goods, and services orders of magnitudes larger than in the Age of Independence.

We can now ‘print money’ without a printing press. Quantitative Easing, allows us to literally increase the amount of money in the system with a click of a button. If we think of money as a transferable source of energy, then we can temporarily massively increase the amount of energy available to society. Of course, creating money devalues the existing money that is there, but this balancing effect takes time as the debt markets slow the balance back to equilibrium, and inflation takes time to reach consumers. This additional energy allows governments to pay for services to keep society stable and regulate the ups and downs of a fast-paced economy. This has the effect of lowering the death rates in our society and keeping populations stable. It is not the only factor lowering death rates, but it is significant in my opinion.

In China and India these effects bring industrial age death rates (much lower than agricultural death rates). However, in those countries, many parts of the population still have agricultural birth rates, and this creates a huge increase in population.

The net effect of a much faster paced electronic marketplace with larger and larger amounts of players, with more and more complex products and services, is that the economics of the world has become so complex that no one person or government has the answers or ability to solve any of the issues. We are both independent of global economics and completely dependent at the same time.

Our entire capitalist society and the belief in the Darwinian finite resource model promotes individualist behaviours such as competition, lack of trust, and a deep inability to work together for a common goal.

The behaviours and human attributes that are rewarded in a competitive capitalist environment, right from early childhood, such a ranking us against each other in exams, works against our very basic human needs of community, sharing, and connection.

From the school exams, where working together is called cheating, to businesses that have the same goal and provide the same customer value who work against each other to steal market share, both examples make it harder to achieve the value and goals that each has.

The problems in business and in society no longer require competitive behaviour and individualism, instead, we need co-operation, co-creation, and the ability to see resources differently. Instead of building walls, we need to be able to see each other as holding a key piece of the puzzle that when combined makes a better whole that serves us all.

To compete in this advanced marketplace with its increased flow and complexity requires a business optimised to do so.

Organisation structure

We have this amazing opportunity through technological advancement and economic complexity to build businesses with innovations we could only dream of just a few decades ago, but our organizations are still set up like they were in the 19th century with its much slower-moving problem space.

This is where Agile and the related enablers come in. Agility is the restructuring of both our consciousness in how we see ourselves and the emerging of dynamic structures and processes. The shift in consciousness must come first and then structure and processes arise from that.

The organisational structures that arise from the interdependent mindset are unique but have similar properties. In the next chapter, we uncover The AWA Playbook for Organisational Change. This playbook is a large-scale coaching conversation to enable an organisation to include all voices and incrementally discover what is happening in the right now and create short experiments to increment the right structure for the right context.

Agility

So far, in the previous chapters, we have examined the Agile Onion as a way to see agility as an emergent phenomenon that occurs with the right mindset or beliefs. In this chapter, we looked at agility from a historical point of view as the emergence of a new planetary consciousness that moves us from the individualistic and expert mindset to the decentralised subject pluralistic mindset that builds the foundations for much deeper collaboration and a deeper sense of connectedness to vision and purpose.

From grand narratives to collective collaboration

History is written by the mainstream — adapted saying

The version of history that we typically receive is written by the privileged.

Recently, as part of the spreading awareness of racism through the Black Lives Matter movement after the horrific attack on Eric Garner by a US policeman; crowds of angry protestors tore down a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, England.

First narrative: Edward Colston was a philanthropist and charitable donor to Bristol and London in the 1700s. He was also a slave trader.
Or another way of putting it:
Second narrative: Edward Colston was a dealer of slaves and made his money from the misery of others and then when he had enough, he gave some of it away to good causes to look good.

What is interesting is that depending on which narrative you choose; different actions follow. Clearly, in 1895, they chose a favourable narrative that was enough to warrant a statue in the city. In 2020, the narrative that has been chosen is the latter and his statue wound up in the canal.

Organisational change is no different. Narrative dictates the actions but not in a way you might expect. Culture is a locally subjective view projected onto the wider organisation. Leaders who try to control this narrative and dictate what is and what is not, are acting from a place of privilege. Dictating someone’s narrative no longer fits with the Age of Interdependence where people make up their own minds about what is and what is not.

Dictating the narrative, especially from a place of privilege, produces resistance, marginalisation, and ultimately revenge. That is not good for collaboration or business.

We need a new way of creating the narrative, and that is together. We need to refresh that narrative continuously as our situations change and new voices are heard.

Creating a narrative together requires a new mindset, values, principles, practices, and tools.

This book describes and will give practical steps on how we do that and how we move forwards together to better organisations that reflect who we are becoming and enable us to solve the problems we face today, through a shared and collectively constructed narrative.

End of chapter.

Additional notes for anyone who wants to go deeper: The narrative narrative

Question: What do you get if you cross a constructivist with a Mafioso?
Answer: An offer you can’t understand! — Ronald M. Green

Even the constructivist belief that I present here is a narrative. Having a narrative of no narrative is still a narrative. The only way forward is to build your own collectively agreed local reality that is relevant and useful for participants to define the actions you need AND that is balanced with the wider social reality so that everything cohesively works together. You can’t do this as a one-time exercise or with a top-down dictated view. It has to be done bit by bit and incrementally, with continual checking on the current state of the groups ‘here and now’.

The important point here is that the narrative is not made up. It is the here and now as much as anyone in the team or group can externalise it.

The idea that leaders hold the vision is no longer valid.

A key part of constructivism and the Age of Interdependence is a decentralisation of the big narrative to the subjective local narrative. Marginalisation occurs when the mainstream narrative leaves minorities with no voice. If we truly want to embrace diversity and inclusion, we must not rely on mainstream narratives. This obviously does not sit well with the mainstream or leaders who need command and control! However, mainstream narratives are not enough for us to be able to change our actions or provide the motivation for us to make a collective difference.

Finding the balance between local narratives and the larger collective narrative is vital to avoid disconnection, radicalism, and dysfunction.

Taking it to the extreme

If we take this theory to the limit, we create ever smaller and smaller increments of alignment with the wider narrative and checking in with the local narrative, until we exist only in the here and now making micro instantaneous decisions. The narrative itself falls away and the noise gets quieter. I have experienced this personally through meditation until I become a channel for a higher creative purpose connected to the whole. I have not yet experienced this with a wider team. I expect this is possible as the lines of communication become better and the increments can be smaller and smaller. Emotional contexts arise and fall without conflict or fragmentation of the team. I believe agility in its purest form is a narrative that holds within it the same power as the original holy texts that lead to peace and connection to something more than we are as individuals.

To make it work it requires an upgrade in our ability to cope with complexity, pluralism, and apparent paradox.

If you would like to build your own timeline and partial narrative, we run an exercise where you can do this on the Enterprise Coaching Bootcamp. It would be great to see you there.

CEO and Founder of the community of practice, training, and coaching company: Adventures with Agile.