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OPed: Why are we still working in structures designed 100 years ago? 

Did you start your career with the idea of climbing the corporate ladder? Or did you find a business with the idea that you’d eventually employ levels of hierarchy – senior management, middle management and hands-on workers as your business grows?

If the answer is yes, I’d say you’re in the majority. 

Organisational hierarchy and prescribed job descriptions are embedded in our workplaces, despite being derived from a time when workers were valued for their ability to complete a manual task or repeatedly follow simple instructions, rather than to think for themselves. 

I recently completed a two-year piece of research into whether or not people are consistently doing their best work, and was sadly not surprised to discover that more than 60% of participants said they weren’t. This was across a wide range of industries and roles. 

Digging deeper into the findings, it became clear that we’re expecting people to thrive in structures that are designed to constrain, rather than motivate and empower them to be truly exceptional. 

The evolution of work 

As a society, we’ve made incredible progress in the way we work. In my working life we’ve gone from paper-based work in 9-5 office settings, to flexible, free-range digitally-empowered work uninhibited by geography and circumstances.

But we haven’t evolved the way we organise people and work to the same extent, and top-down leadership is stifling creativity, leaving people feeling disconnected and undervalued. The exact opposite of the conditions required for people to truly thrive and contribute to the best of their abilities. 

By truly valuing the people who are delivering the work in our businesses – whether it’s a frontline worker in aged care, a call centre operator or a knowledge worker sitting at a desk – we’re recognising that each person has unique and worthwhile insights and experiences to share. 

So, how might businesses create environments where people are encouraged to contribute, where they feel valued, and connected to a shared purpose? 

It’s time to rethink our organisations and to take incremental steps to building businesses where ideas can flourish, and innovation becomes the norm. 

Bold ideas need bold leadership 

In the right conditions, our people can contribute to a state of continuous improvement in our businesses, as well as being given permission to be innovative and to think big picture. To ask – what could we be doing differently? What other problems could we be solving?

These big ideas won’t flourish if senior leaders insist on gatekeeping an organisation’s strategy and decisions. 

In my research, leaders voiced frustration over extensive meetings, protracted decision-making, inefficient systems, and a risk-averse culture often stifling innovative ideas. One respondent noted: “There is an inertia from the immune system in organisations that comes from rigid structures and lack of openness to change. Leaders want control and don’t want to let it go.” – Entrepreneur and Consultant, Professional Services.

This kind of inertia is leading to missed opportunities, missed contributions and missed potential. 

Take a moment to imagine what your people might contribute with the right climate and permission to share their ideas? 

Autonomy, purpose and mastery

This kind of change isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s not about suddenly throwing out structures and creating a free for all where people can run with any idea they want to work on. 

Connecting people to a shared purpose and giving them more autonomy will ultimately enable them to do meaningful work that delivers value to the business.

Back in the 90s, I was one of the strategists who delivered the 2000 Sydney Olympics. As a team of mostly Olympic rookies, it was a daunting prospect – we had a roadmap, but we had no playbook on how to plan, prepare and deliver events for 10,000 athletes across 28 sports. But we did have a bold, inspiring purpose, the freedom to bring big ideas to the table, and permission from the executive team to make things happen, without being restrained by bureaucracy and organisational silos. 

The result was a global event that earned the title of ‘the best Games ever’, and our playbook was acquired by the International Olympic Committee to share with future Olympic cities.

For people in your business, the permission to collaborate across different parts of the business, and knowing their leaders trust them to do the right thing, could also provide fertile ground where ideas can flourish. 

Daniel Pink, best-selling author and expert in business and behaviour, noted that there are three key elements for people to do their best work: purpose, autonomy and mastery. 

This mastery is about getting people to work on something that’s a challenge, while ensuring guidance and support is available if they need it. It’s the idea of being in a zone of proximal development, where your team can stretch themselves outside of their comfort zone, while knowing you have their back. It means they can enjoy the challenge of something new, but not to the point of feeling out of their depth.

Steps toward change

Whether you’re in an established business or you’re a startup ready to scale, there are accessible ways to challenge traditional structures and encourage collaboration. 

You could start by: 

  • Defining your purpose, which is about the impact you want to have in your community or beyond, and making it visible, both internally and externally. Every organisation should have a meaningful purpose beyond simply making a profit, so get clear on yours and then help your people connect with it. 
  • Encouraging ideation – create forums and channels that are safe spaces for ideas to evolve. 
  • Embracing agility – through more collaboration and regular checkpoints to reflect and adapt – is this still working or are there ways to evolve it along the way?
  • Acknowledging and rewarding people who show initiative with learning opportunities – so that they feel valued and are also encouraged to further develop their skills and knowledge.

As one executive I surveyed noted, as a leader they value: “Autonomy and continuous learning. Set the goal and define the metrics then empower people to achieve it without being prescriptive. People thrive when they are constantly learning something. It’s not about failing, it’s about creating a culture of learning.” Executive, Technology. Are you ready to create a culture that values sharing and learning, and evolve beyond a hierarchy that keeps people in their box? It’s never too late to start. 

As we look to the future, I’m convinced that purpose will be paramount for all organisations, which is why I love this quote from Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics: “In the past jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in future they’ll be about the heart.”

Read the full whitepaper resulting from my global research at: Rethinking the future of work in a fragile world

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Cherie Mylordis

Cherie Mylordis

​​​Cherie Mylordis is the founder of nextgenify, and a Sydney-based work futurist, speaker, transformation and innovation coach, on a mission to help organisations reimagine the world of work for a better future.

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