The Role of the Individual in the Organization of the Future

I was recently introduced to the work of Undercurrent, an organizational design consulting firm that is really pushing against the edges of how we think about optimally functioning organizations. I’m going to do my best to summarize some of their overarching thoughts, but if you’re really interested you should go straight to the sources.

Organizational Structure for a New Era

In a nutshell, Undercurrent is a proponent of the idea that the most responsive and nimble organizations also tend to be the most effective. Given the speed and power of technology and communication in the world today organizational structures that dominated in the 70’s and 80’s are not the same types of structures that will dominate today and in the future. Instead of creating tall hierarchical structures with clear chains of command and the titles and job responsibilities that accompany a hierarchy, many successful companies are choosing a much “flatter" and in many ways, complex, structure.

Holacracy, agile squads, and self-organizing teams are all the rage and many would argue it's for good reason. With these structures (or really, the lack thereof) companies can be quicker to respond to economic pressures and opportunities. It’s easy to see how this would work for Silicon Valley tech startups but Undercurrent would argue that even well-established companies in less high-tech industries could benefit from moving toward less hierarchy, less structure, and more self-organization.

All of this is fascinating.

Independent Work and Workers

I’ve taken organizational theory and organizational development classes in my PhD coursework and I’ve enjoyed all of them. This talk of structure and overall organizational decision making is incredibly interesting to me and I know quite a bit about it — but it’s also not my bread and butter.

My bread and butter actually has almost nothing to do with people who work in organizations and yet, I think my research interests align incredibly well with the organizational structure movement Undercurrent is promoting. There are questions pounding away at my head as I think about this changing nature of work and organizational life are: What implications does all this have at an individual level? How do you develop (or hire) people who thrive (not just survive) in highly autonomous, uncertain, and ambiguous work situations?

As many of you already know, my research is currently focused on independent workers — freelancers, micro-entrepreneurs, and contract workers. People who start their own thing and keep it deliberately small (for a myriad of reasons). At this moment, I’m particularly interested in the developable skills of self-leadership and self-management for this group of people. Being able to self-lead and self-manage when you work on your own are utterly vital skills to have. Given a lot of the economic indicators and statistics that I’ve seen, I think the growth of independent work is inevitable and already a movement that has been very much set in motion. However, I know that the future of work is never going to be everybody running their own freelance careers or starting independent businesses. Organizations aren’t going away — but I think the way that we’ve thought of organizations for a long time, is.

The Collision of Independent Work & New Organizational Structures

Working in one of these holocratic or highly responsive organizations is going to become more and more like being an independent worker. Autonomy is rampant. Ambiguity about job roles and tasks is a given. A general lack of structure about the how of work is substituted for a focus on the what. As life in organizations becomes more like independent work the skills I’ve begun to identify as being absolutely vital to independent workers, tolerance for ambiguity, self-leadership, self-management, self-awareness, growth mindset, “integrated personal development,” to name a few, are also the skills that anyone working in an organization of the future will need.

How do you develop the people you already have within your organization to be a better fit for this more dynamic, fluid, and uncertain environment? What can be done at the organization level to upgrade the skills of your people? To upgrade the frameworks they use to think about their role in the organization and what it means to do good work on a moment-to-moment basis? Looking outside the organization, how do you make sure you hire people who will be a good fit for this type of environment? How can you make sure you select the people with the highest probability to thrive in an environment that looks more and more like a buzzing and roiling ant hill than an orderly and logical military unit?

I have some ideas about answers to these questions and luckily they spur even more questions within me that seem ripe for empirical investigation. When I originally stepped down this path of indie work research I was a little bit worried that I was setting myself up for failure by focusing on too small a niche. Sure, there are a lot of independent workers in the world and the number seems to be growing, but more people work in organizations. What impact could I really hope to have when I was focusing on a minority of the working population? The work of Undercurrent (and I’m sure other organizations that I’m not aware of yet) has assuaged that fear for me. I now realize that to understand independent workers is to better understand highly autonomous workers regardless of whether they work for themselves, a start-up, or a Fortune 500 company just beginning to experiment with new ways of organizing.

Organizational structures are changing in such a way that requires you to get better. Is there anything more exciting?

Photo by John