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Today, every manager thinks out-of-the-box and every vacancy is looking for people who think out-of-the-box.

Then I wonder: do you actually know the box?

If you don’t know where the box starts and ends, how can you get out of it?Jean Paul Van Bendegem

HR is a child of its generation.

That is the generation of post-war prosperity, the idea of progress and the belief in boundless economic growth. Also the generation of scientific management, bureaucracy, profit and efficiency.

That thinking has generated concepts such as management by objectives, division of tasks and specialization, chain of command, job descriptions and classification, best practices, individual objectives, bonuses linked to evaluation, horizontal & vertical differentiation and organization charts, etc.

All these concepts are translations of deep-rooted ‘insights’ such as:

  • The future is relatively predictable and so, provided that all available information is properly analyzed, you can make and implement a future strategy and plan.
  • There is such a thing as ‘the right way’ and so ‘compliance’ and ‘copying’ of successful recipes is the best way to future success (hence processes, procedures, policies, etc …)
  • It is best to deploy people on a very small, specialized part of the chain, because then they can do that ‘very well’ and the chance of errors is smaller.
  • It is best to separate ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ so that the ‘top’ can figure out what needs to be done, based on all the information and give then precise instructions for implementation.
  • That the ‘doers’ cannot actually be trusted and that managers must follow up and check who does what, how much, when and how.
  • That individual, autonomous initiative in organizations leads to chaos
  • ‘Membership’ of an organization is mainly defined by a contract in which the ’employee’ exchanges his time for wages and the employer then determines what the employer does during that time

Broadly speaking, that is still the ‘theory in use’ behind most organizational and HRM artefacts (structure, policies, practices). After decades of ‘talk’ about commitment, engagement, ownership and self-managing teams, the reality is hard: on average, two thirds of all employees in organizations (including young people and managers) are NOT ENGAGED in the ‘project’ of their organization and ‘burned out’ and ‘bore-out’ is a far bigger problem than ever before.

Right now, when we are facing very complex and crucial challenges in a very foggy unpredictable business and societal context, we need everyone’s commitment and imagination and the successful recipes of the past, will NO LONGER do the trick.

GENERATIVITY: Developing new ways of acting and thinking together in organizations is now the key to sustainable success.

However, many organizations are stuck in a CONTAINMENT PARADIGM in which HR designs all kinds of tools to ensure that employees carry out ‘the right path’, determined by management, as well and as faithfully as possible. This paradigm strengthens the ‘status quo’, keeps things simple and managable, but in doing so, stands in the way of real innovation.

  • It is very profit-oriented and governed by efficiency thinking. That slows down ‘innovation and experimentation’, because it forces people with ‘new ideas’ to prove that it works to get persmission, time, budget to spend on it) before they actually can try it out.
  • It focusses on the ‘short term’. You can very efficiently do the wrong things that endanger the longer term future of your organization. (as happened at Lehman Brothers, GM and Volkswagen for example)
  • The one-sided interests of the ‘shareholder or owner’ are ‘looked after’ by passing the costs on to others (environmental costs, job loss, quality of life, etc.). If you include those risks and costs, many business decisions are no longer efficient at all.
  • The challenges that determine the ‘survival’ of organizations have become so complex (Corona, Brexit, energy transition, geopolitical landslides, technological revolutions, …) that ‘copying success formulas from the past has become a guarantee for failure’ and co- creation and inclusion of all stakeholders have become a prerequisite for sustainable development of organizations
  • And that innovative power & expertise is available in most organizations, but must be used. Employees today also want to and can be co-owners of the organization’s project. The well-educated, independent, creative employee who wants to develop his talent and make a meaningful contribution to society, is nothing like the uneducated, poor ‘worker’ who was happy to put ‘food’ on the table by working in the factory or in an administration .
  • Profit as a goal in itself is not attractive to many employees, they want to create ‘value’, make a meaningful contribution to society, and not just ‘go to work because you will be paid for it’. Pay is not a goal, but a means that allows you to contribute to something that is important to you.

Control, command, containment, planning, project management etc … make sense in very predictable situations, where you can say exactly what the outcome of a certain action will be and where a few people can fully map the problem based on a good analysis and can provide ‘ready-made’ solutions.

But a number of challenges that organizations face today are extremely complex, unpredictable and it is actually impossible to foresee the ‘effect’ of a particular action or decision.

And for those kinds of challenges you cannot come up with solutions in the ‘boardroom’ and implement them top-down. Then you will have to try-out a lot of different things, create probes, allow for very divergent initiatives simultaneously and learn from these experiments how to move forward.

We recently got a taste of this during the Corona crisis, when a lot of plans, rules, processes and procedures suddenly had to be overruled autonomously by people, working from home and without guidance from their supervisor, in order to get things done. And in “essential” sectors, where people felt that others “depended” on their efforts, they have succeeded wonderfully. People suddenly turned out to be more than autonomous and resourceful.

In such turbulent circumstances (and most organizations will be in it for decades) you need a GENERATIVE PARADIGM, that does not ‘limit’ but on the contrary ‘unleashes’, that stimulates people to experiment, to knowledge sharing, to expansive and divergent thinking, not to ‘follow’ but to ‘take the lead’, not just a few but really everyone.

In his book ‘Reinventing Organizations’ Fréderic Laloux sketches the evolution of organizational culture towards what he calls ‘Teal Organizations’ with as main characteristics : Self-Management, Wholeness & Evolutionary Purpose. It fits seamlessly into the generative paradigm. If you look closely at that model, you will immediately see that many characteristics of organizations, and of HRM, still stem from the red and yellow organization and are still miles away from the generativity of the Teal Organization.

An overview from Red to Teal

It is not particularly difficult to discover mainly elements of red, yellow and orange in many HR practices such as performance management, remuneration, time registration, internal mobility, etc …

Nevertheless, HR can be GENERATIVE, but then this must be paramount in HR policy and HR practices:

  • a co-creative, dialogic culture in the organization
  • focus on ‘value’ for all stakeholders and society
  • where people can work enthusiastically on a shared ambition
  • where everyone participates in the dialogue and is part of collaborative projects
  • space for people to take autonomous initiatives
  • distributed leadership, where people really work together and are not in competition with each other
  • trust instead of ‘interest groups’
Bron :

In the article series ‘HR Practices Revisited’ we will answer the following questions for a number of HR practices:

  • What are the ‘mainstream’ building blocks of that HR practice in most organizations today
  • What ‘theory in use’ is behind that? Even if the ‘espoused theory’ is often different.
  • What is the impact of that? On employees, on the organization, on its innovative and generative capacity, on sustainable development of the organization in a VUCA world?
  • If you start from a GENERATIVE perspective, how would that lead to different practices?

In doing so, we evaluate to what extent the CONTAINMENT or GENERATIVE paradigm was used to develop the relevant HR practices.

HR will not only have to develop those practices, it will also have to reinvent itself as a ‘generative organization’. HR’s shared ambition will sound something like this : help autonomous professionals take innovative initiatives that help formulate and realize our shared ambition as an organization

Helping formulate this shared ambition in dialogue and co-creation is the challenge for HR and will help the organization to perform sustainably, remain relevant and also develop further sustainably (which is not synonymous with growth or profit)

Generative Practices and Levers for a Learning Organization

Organization Development