Permissionless Operations

This applies to large companies, too.

That’s the first thing I thought when I was about halfway through Jennifer Pahlka’s talk. The structured hierarchy; the long, tedious implementations; the many employees passively relying upon a few leaders to make decisions and effect change, and then complaining when the change is difficult or not well-considered—these foundational elements are effectively the same. It seems that we’ve adopted attitudes to our employer that resemble those we take with our government, and the resulting structures have ended up as carbon copies. In reality, the philosophical foundations for this attitude are ancient, and the governments and other socioeconomic systems we have today rely (too heavily) on the legacy of this philosophy. The practical effects of this legacy are that we understand that we must ask permission, that there are rules for everything, that someone else makes the decisions. As a result of these conditions we simply don’t engage.

However, in this era of big data, location-based technology, social media, and crowd sourced actions and solutions these structures and attitudes seem profoundly antiquated. The large, complex, hierarchical systems with rules for every decision are simply nonfunctional when compared to the small, simple, permissionless systems that are arising from the internet.

(This “new system” is not necessarily new when considered historically; the new element is the revolutionary technology which enables the mass application of the underlying philosophical Small is Beautiful principles. For that reason, let’s just call it a new system and skip to the good stuff).

The new system successfully combines our entrepreneurial drive with our communal predilections—two qualities that are often in conflict in our current system, or, worse, are given lip service in an attempt to “engage” employees. In the new system things tend to happen faster, with significantly less turbulence, and with far better results, in large part because people have the choice of whether to engage combined with the desire to be helpful. Individuality integrated with the contextually appropriate opportunity to do something meaningful.

I’ll write that again: Individuality integrated with the contextually appropriate opportunity to do something meaningful. This is the radical differentiator inherent in this new system. Free choice, timely knowledge, and meaningful work made apparent, all simultaneously available.

This is an era in which the best leaders will be facilitators, mentors, philosophers, not generals. They will ease relationships, guide curious inquiry, and engage with a skepticism that challenges others to thoroughly consider stated positions and decisions. I believe that organizations which permit adoption of this new system will experience a significant competitive advantage.

Do you agree? What is your organization doing to adapt to the new and rapidly evolving reality?

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