The Transformation Devours Its Children

COVID-19 is a touchstone for agility and new work. The crisis reveals the true culture of the organization unvarnished. Quite a few beanbags and foosball tables now turn out to be "lipstick on the pig", a naive cargo cult at best and the deliberate deception of a Potemkin village at worst.

It could have been so won­der­ful. Agili­ty could have been used to full advan­tage in the Coro­na cri­sis. More VUCA sim­ply isn’t pos­si­ble. The cri­sis could have become a suc­cess sto­ry. Agili­ty and self-orga­ni­za­tion on a sol­id basis of trust in peo­ple and their will­ing­ness to per­form, and lead­er­ship on a par with one anoth­er, could have emerged as the deci­sive suc­cess fac­tors. The cri­sis would then have been a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to final­ly rethink work, to make it more human(e).

The cri­sis acts like a burn­ing glass and some­times like X‑ray. It makes vis­i­ble what was pre­vi­ous­ly easy to over­look or hid­den. These could have been the advan­tages of agili­ty and new work, i.e., an increased adapt­abil­i­ty with ded­i­cat­ed employ­ees who act inde­pen­dent­ly in the sense of the whole, guid­ed by a com­mon pur­pose. Many pro­tag­o­nists of trans­for­ma­tions in these direc­tions hoped to see exact­ly that as con­fir­ma­tion and affir­ma­tion of the path they had chosen.

COVID-19 is a touch­stone for agili­ty and new work. At the begin­ning by show­ing or not show­ing the hoped for increased adapt­abil­i­ty and resilience of the orga­ni­za­tion. And recent­ly, by show­ing the degree of trust in peo­ple and their abil­i­ty to orga­nize them­selves through the way they can or must return to the office.

You can put lip­stick on a pig. It’s still a pig.

Barack Oba­ma

In many tra­di­tion­al hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions the longed-for rev­o­lu­tion unfor­tu­nate­ly turned out to be an illu­sion upon clos­er inspec­tion. The cri­sis reveals the true cul­ture of the orga­ni­za­tion unvar­nished. Quite a few bean­bags and foos­ball tables now turn out to be “lip­stick on the pig”, a naive car­go cult at best and the delib­er­ate decep­tion of a Potemkin vil­lage at worst.

In the South Seas there is a car­go cult of peo­ple. Dur­ing the war they saw air­planes land with lots of good mate­ri­als, and they want the same thing to hap­pen now. So they’ve arranged to imi­tate things like run­ways, to put fires along the sides of the run­ways, to make a wood­en hut for a man to sit in, with two wood­en pieces on his head like head­phones and bars of bam­boo stick­ing out like anten­nas — he’s the con­troller — and they wait for the air­planes to land. They’re doing every­thing right. The form is per­fect. It looks exact­ly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No air­planes land. So I call these things car­go cult sci­ence, because they fol­low all the appar­ent pre­cepts and forms of sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion, but they’re miss­ing some­thing essen­tial, because the planes don’t land.

Richard Feyn­man, 1974

Before the cri­sis, there was a spark of hope that offices that don’t look like ster­ile hos­pi­tals and sneak­ers instead of ties could be signs of change. The dan­ger of the car­go cult was of course known to all pro­tag­o­nists of the trans­for­ma­tion, but on good days it could be gen­er­ous­ly over­looked or mis­in­ter­pret­ed. Not any­more. And this cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, cou­pled with a lack of per­spec­tive, now caus­es many pro­tag­o­nists to despair. The trans­for­ma­tion devours its children.

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