Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.

– Seth Godin

I read a lot including books, papers, articles, online content, and whatever else I can get my hands on. My interests are wide and varied including everything from deep technical science articles to more intellectual takes on popular culture. Among my interests are business or management articles. These speak about various ways of getting the best results from employees using largely positive and empowering techniques. Somehow I never see the techniques espoused in these articles in practice. Increasingly, the articles I read about management and business are science fiction with an ever-widening gap between reality and the ideal. The same gap is present in the realm of politics and public policy. Many bi-partisan forces threaten to push us into an authoritarian future that crushes human spirit challenge the ideal and progressive changes needed to make society function better. Inside and outside of work we see the potential of people constricted to produce predictable results that comply with a sense of order and safety.download

When I read articles on excellence in management and business a big part of the message is employee empowerment and motivation. Empowered and motivated employees can be a huge benefit for a company (or by extension Lab, University, organization,…). Another way of expressing this common message is the encouragement of innovation and problem solving as a route to added value and high performance. Usually this is articulated as out of the box thinking, work and performance. Yet when I return to my reality, the writing seems dramatically out of touch and impossible to imagine being implemented where I work. Almost every thing my management does, and our “corporate” governance strives for is compliance, subservience, and in the box thinking. We are pushed to be predictable and downright pedestrian in everything we do. A large part of the ability to tolerate this environment is the articulation of standards of performance. Today standards of performance are defined not by excellence and achievement, but compliance and predictability. The result is the illusion of excellence and achievement when the reality is exactly the opposite. Remarkably like cattle moving to slaughter, we go along with it.

The greatest irony of the current era is the need to keep out of the box thinking under control, effectively putting it in the box. You can only be out of the box within strictly defined boundaries lest you create a situation that might not be completely under control. Of course this is a complete oxymoron and leads to the sort of ridiculous outcomes at work we all recognize. We are encouraged to be bold at work as long as we comply with all the rules and regulations. We can be bold in our thinking as long as no risks are taken. It is the theatre of the absurd. We can magically manage our way to getting all the reward without any of the risk. Bold outcomes automatically come with risk, and usually unpredictable results and unintended consequences. All of these things are completely outside the realm of the acceptable today. Our governance is all about predictably intended consequences and the entire system is devoted to control and safety. The bottom line is you can’t have the fruits of boldness, innovation and discovery without risking something and potentially courting disaster. If you don’t take risks, you don’t get the rewards, a maxim that our leaders don’t seem to understand.

One of the great sources for business articles is the well-written and respected Harvadrive_book-by-daniel-pink_danpinkdotcom1rd Business Review (HBR). I know my managers read many of the same things I do. They also read business books, sometimes in a faddish manner. Among these is Daniel Pink’s excellent “Drive”. When I read HBR I feel inspired, and hopeful (Seth Godin’s books are another source of frustration and inspiration). When I read Drive I was left yearning for a workplace that operated on the principles expressed there. Yet when I return to the reality of work these pieces of literature seem fictional, even more like science fiction. The reality of work today is almost completely orthogonal to these aspirational writings. How can my managers read these things, then turn around and operate the way they do? No one seems to actually think through what implementation of these ideas would look like in the workplace. With each passing year we fall further from the ideal, more toward a workplace that crushes dreams, and simply drives people into some sort of cardboard cutout variety of behavior without any real soul.

seth-godin-booksWhile work is the focus of my adult world, similar trends are at work on our children. School has become a similarly structured training ground for compliance and squalid mediocrity. Standardized testing is one route to this outcome where children are trained to take tests and no solve problems. Standardized testing becomes the perfect rubric for the soulless workplace that awaits them in the adult world. The rejection of fact and science by society as a whole is another way. We have a large segment of society who is suspicious of intellect. Too many people now view educated intellectuals as dangerous and their knowledge and facts are rejected whenever they disagree with the politically chosen philosophy. This attitude is a direct threat to the value of an educated populace. Under a system where intellect is devalued, education transforms into a means of training the population to obey authority and fall into line. The workplace is subject to the same trends, compliance and authority is prized along with predictability of results. The lack of value for intellect is also present within the sort of research institutions I work at. This is because it threatens predictability of results. As a result out of the box thinking is discouraged, and the entire system is geared to keep everyone in the box. We create systems oriented toward control and safety without realizing the price paid for rejecting exploration and risk. We all live a life less rich and less rewarding as a result, and by accumulating this over society, a broad-based diminishment of results.

Be genuine. Be remarkable. Be worth connecting with.

– Seth Godin

When I see my managers reading things like HBR or Drive, I’m left wondering about how they can square their actions with the distance from what they read? My wife likes to promote “Reality-based Management,” the practical application of principles within a pragmatic approach to achievement. This is good advice that I strive to apply. There is a limit to pragmatism when the forces within society continually push us away from every ideal. Pragmatism is a force for survival and making the best of a bad situation, but there is a breaking point. When does reality become so problematic that something must change? When does the disempowering force become so great that change must occur? Perhaps we are at this point. I find myself hoping for a wholesale rejection of the forces of compliance that enslave us. Unfortunately we have rejected progressive forces nationally, and embraced the slaveholders who seek to exploit and disempower us. We have accepted being disempowered in trade for safety. Make no mistake, we have handed those who abuse the populace with a yoke and whip, and a “mandate” to turn the screws on all of us. In return we all get to be safe, and live a less rich life through the controls such safety requires.

I have to admit to myself that many people prize control and safety above all else. They are willing to reject freedom and rewards if safety can be assured. This is exactly the trade that many Americans have made. Bold, exciting and rewarding lives are traded for safety and predictable outcomes. The same thing is happening for many companies and organizations and infests work with compliance through rules and regulations. We see this play out with the reactions to terrorism. Terrorism has paved the way turlo massive structures of control and societal safety. It also creates an apparatus for big brother to come to fruition in a way that makes Orwell more prescient than ever. The counter to such widespread safety and control is the diminished richness of life that is sacrificed to achieve it. Lives well-lived and bold outcomes are reduced in achieving safety. I’ve gotten to the point where this trade no longer seems worth it. What am I staying safe for? I am risking living a pathetic and empty life in trade for safety and security, so that I can die quietly. This is life in the box, and I want to live out of the box. I want to work out of the box too.

The core message of my work is get in the box and don’t make waves, just do what you’re told. The message from society as a whole may be exactly the same with order, structure and compliance being prized by a large portion of the population. Be happy with what you’ve got, everything is fine. I suspect that my management is just as disempowered as I am. More deeply the issues surrounding this problem are societal. Americans are epically disempowered with many people expressing this dysfunction politically. The horror show is playing out Nationally with the election of a historically unpopular and unqualified President simply because he isn’t part of the system. The population as a whole thinks things are a mess. For roughly half the people electing an unqualified, politically incorrect, outsider seems like the appropriate response. The deeper problem is that the sort of in the box forces are not partisan at all, the right does its thing and the left does another thing, but both seek to disempower the population as a whole.

Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.

– Seth Godin

Some part of Trump’s support comes from people who just want to burn the system to the ground. Another group of people exist on the left who want the same outcome, destroy the current system. Maybe Trump will destroy the system and create a future, but I seriously doubt it. I’m guessing more of a transition to kleptocratic rule where the government actively works to loot the country for the purpose of enriching a select few. I’d prefer a much more constructive and progressive path to the future where human potential is unleashed and unlocked. Ultimately a lack of progress in fixing the system will eventually lead to something extreme and potentially violent. The bottom line is that the forces enslaving us are driven by the sort of people represented by the leadership of both political parties. The ruling class has power and money with the intent of holding and expanding it and personal empowerment of common citizens is a threat to their urlauthority. The ruling business class and wealthy elite enjoy power through subtle subjugation of the vast populace. The populace accepts their subjugation in trade for promises of safety and security through the control of risk and danger.

For now, the message at work is get in the box by complying while not making waves and simply doing what you are told to do. No amount of reading about employee empowerment can fix the reality until there is a commitment to a different path. The management can talk till they are blue in the face about their principles, diversity, excellence, teamwork and the power of innovative out of the box thinking, but the reality is the opposite. The national reality is the same, bullshit about everyone mattering, and a truth where very few matter at all. We have handed the reins of power to those who put us in bondage, and we would have done the same if the democrats had won too. There will be real differences in what the bondage looks like, but the result is largely the same. Rather than breaking our chains, we have decided to make the bonds stronger. We can hope that people recognize the error and change course sooner rather vyxvbzwxthan later. As long as we continue to prize safety and security over possibility and potential, we can expect to be disempowered.

We have so much potential waiting to be unleashed by rejecting in the box thinking. To get there we need to reject over-whelming safety, control and compliance. We need to embrace risk and possibility with the faith that our talents can lead us to a greater future powered by innovative, inspired thinking and lives well lived by empowering everyone to get out of the box.

The best way to be missed when you’re gone is to stand for something when you’re here.

– Seth Godin

 

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