Once upon a time a sales office of a large company decided to run their business along the principles of stewardship. One of the strategies the vice president was pursuing was to give sales and support people more ownership for the business. They were moving into a new office, so the decision was made to have responsibility for designing the new space rest with those who would be using it. Teams of sales people, support people, and supervisors met with interior designers and office suppliers to explore what kind of office would balance their needs for workspace, meetings, privacy, social contact, community, and storage.
The office design they built with worked well. The space was functional. The cost of the new office was about 20% less than usual for that number of people in that location. The environment also supported creating a community among the different functions and made a strong statement in support of partnership. The office soon began to attract some positive publicity. It was touted as the office of the future. It even won an award for innovation in office design.
The corporate mind in the regional office rightfully raised the question of how to bring the success to other parts of the business. The regional management team defined their role as bringing leadership, consistency, and control to the company’s regional operations. Through their eyes the innovation that mattered was in the office design itself, not in the way it was created. The office design got the award, costs were lower, flexibility was higher, performance equal or better, so their strategy was to export the design to other locations. They began a process of copying the design to other offices, acting as if the value was the design of the office, instead of the redistribution of power and privilege it symbolised.
The original vice president had consciously chosen to place power and privilege in the hands of those closest to the customer and the work. The redesign of the office was to him only one means for expressing his intention to redesign the governance strategy for the business. His bosses though, saw his success as a triumph of office design, choosing not recognise the more radical process of reformed governance. What they saw fit to roll out was a program for redesigning offices. They set standards and requirements for the new office plans. They wanted timetables and the reassurance that this innovative office design would be the standard within a certain time frame. The demand to institute the new design got compliance in some places, resistance in others, and rarely delivered the outcomes of the original site. In time the idea reached corporate headquarters. It was then sold on the basis that the shared, open space would not only save money, but would force salespeople out of the office and into the field.
What had begun as an act to give people more control over their own jobs was warped into a coercive strategy to standardise offices, save money, and exert more control over salespeople, force them out into the field. The office of the future became the office of the past. Partnership was co-opted by patriarchy. Patriarchy won. The business lost.
So far I’ve watched this tale play out every time I’ve encountered an Agile Transformation – all about roles, org charts, and process to inflict behaviour change; nothing about autonomy, trust, clarity of purpose and desired outcomes, self-organisation and management working in service to those doing the work.
The intention to move a whole company at one time, toward one culture, by one means, is destined to evoke compliance, not commitment. It becomes high coercion and not high performance. The question is, does a company genuinely seek only compliance or does it want more?
(The story is taken from Peter Block’s book, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest.)