Detectives, Students and Explorers: Seizing the Opportunity to Reinvent the Future of Work

The good news is that the U.S. unemployment rate is under six percent again, aided in part by our shrinking labor force. The bad news is that only 30 percent of those employed are "actively engaged" in their work according to Gallup. Worldwide, the numbers are even worse. Only 13 percent of the worldwide workforce is actively engaged. And while 30 percent is better than 13 percent, it still leaves us with 70 percent of our workforce "not engaged" or "actively disengaged."

You don't have to look too far to see why. The reigning idea of having a "good job" is the legacy of the industrial revolution(s) and was a relatively stable concept for about a hundred years. That age is over. The order and systems that we've based our expectations and plans upon have changed. Competition is fierce. The impact of everything from digital disruption to globalization is being felt not just in companies, but across entire industries. The pace of change and unpredictability is contributing to the stress, pressure and general dis-ease in the workplace.

Unfortunately, the typical knee-jerk corporate response has been to double down on the existing order; "right-sizing", focusing on controlling costs instead of creating value, regarding short-term shareholder value as more urgent than long-term organizational health. Customers, products and especially employees are often considered required inputs to the profit generating equation; unworthy of consideration outside of their immediate contribution. It need not be so.

Embracing a New Reality

I've been there and I don't want to work in that environment. I want to work in an environment where I can thrive personally and professionally. A place where I can contribute and look forward to going to work each Monday, with team members that enjoy their work, make and keep their commitments, and participate from a commitment to do their best work. I want to work where respect for all is the order of the day and I can't help but believe that many of the disengaged are looking for the same. In fact, many of the leaders and managers of these organizations want the same thing, but are failing to make the necessary changes. In his breakthrough research surveying over a million people around the globe, Bill Jensen writes:

The biggest fundamental shift in capacity is in freeing people to be their best. Yet too many leaders are holding back that future because it comes wrapped in risk. Eighty-six percent of respondents said the toughest challenges and choices facing senior execs were people issues -- how to find them, organize them, manage them, resource them and develop them -- so that everyone has the capacity to help their teams and their company succeed.

There are, of course, bright spots. The Morning Star Packing Company has helped pioneer self-management and has grown to supplying 40 percent of the U.S. ingredient tomato paste and diced tomato markets. Zappos built a billion-dollar business in eight years, and landed on Fortune's Top 100 Companies to Work For in year nine. I have friends at Rackspace, Pandora, Southwest Airlines, and other companies that tell me they love their work culture and are consequently delighted to be working there. But as a whole, our business norms are from the last century.

What is holding us back from freeing people to be their best in the workplace? Put simply it is the residual culture, our experiences, our paradigms, and our expectations shaped by an earlier vanishing reality. We are using old mental maps to transverse new realities and wondering why we aren't getting where we want to go, why it's so difficult, why it's so frustrating, why work isn't engaging.

As Steven Covey put it in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "The map is not the territory." Our territory, our reality, is changing all around us at an ever increasing pace. Even our best mental maps are outdated as of tomorrow's news cycle, the next innovative product, or the next disruptive idea. We need to embrace the ever changing realities, not cling to the ideals and maps that have ceased to function optimally.

Regardless of your role -- if you are an employee on your first job, a mid-level manager or the CEO -- you can have an impact. The same forces that are supplying the disruption are the same forces that will give us the opportunity and leverage to see the world as it is and begin to shape it the way we want it to be. There has never, in the history of the world, been as much opportunity to create the life and work that we want to enjoy. If we want to change our own workplace environment, much less have an impact on the future of work in general, I believe we must become detectives, students and explorers.

Become a Detective: Becoming a detective is about taking the time to examine how we see the world and requires an awareness of our own maps, a willingness to challenge those maps, and the discipline to redraw them as required. It means trading in a "right/wrong" approach for an "effective/ineffective" approach. It's pausing to ask, even when we think we know what the next step is, or the "right" answer, "What is new that I should take into account in this situation? What is the most effective approach?"

Become a Student: Becoming a student is about investing the time to cultivate an awareness of what is happening in our territory. Connect with other like-minded people. Read. Understanding what is working and what is not working is critical to your exploration. This is not a formula. It's an experiment, a direction. Read Bill Jensen, David Gray, Stephen Denning, Reid Hoffman, and Rod Collins. Figure out what is working in their worlds and start thinking about how to bring it into yours.

Become an Explorer: Take action. Begin the conversation in your world. Take a risk. Skillfully point out what you see at work. Ask, "Why not?" Your company may or may not understand and pursue your recommendations but when the future overwhelms them, they will remember that it was you who spoke out; it was you who pointed the way. And you'll be free to find new places to invest in and create value with people that really do want to better understand their world and have a positive impact. Together we can create the future of work.

Bill Sanders is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, a boutique consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness: co-founder and Advisory Board Member of Alynd, software that facilitates and supports team alignment through commitments: and Co-Lead Link of the Finance Circle for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness. Connect with Bill on twitter at @technacea.