The Inevitable Future of Your Workplace

Following is an excerpt from our new book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy co-authored with Stephen J. Gill

We think that the heart of managing minds was summed up years ago by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who was a keen observer of the relationship of hands and minds at work, is thought to have said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” We cannot anticipate the turbulent seas and uncharted territory ahead in the economy, but we can prepare managers for navigating their organizations to success.

Imagine that we have traveled to the not-too-distant future. All organizations are managing minds, from the most high-tech companies to the oldest factories and mills. What would a day be like? Imagine a company in which:

  • Continuous learning, and learning fast, is key, even in the face of unprecedented change: managing tremendous amounts of information, creating new products and processes in response to global competition, using new apps to be more efficient and effective, and responding to the learning preferences of a multigenerational, diverse workforce.
  • Employees are hired because they are excited about learning and improving themselves. They have a history of taking responsibility for their own learning. They aren’t afraid to admit that they do not know something, and they willingly seek out the help they need to improve and become high performers.
  • The message from the CEO to new employees is that learning and self-development are highly valued. Continuous learning is expected from everyone in the organization, from senior leadership down. Incentives and public recognition reward those employees who seek out opportunities to enhance their competencies and increase their capability to contribute to the success of the organization.
  • Critical information is easily accessible on the go. Equipment operators can view safety information on their smartphones when and where they need it. Managers can download coaching advice prior to meeting with a direct report. Leaders can see a video on open-book management just before discussing it with their teams.
  • Managers meet every few weeks with their direct reports to discuss performance and learning goals. Employees report what they’ve been learning. Managers give employees constructive feedback, and together they decide how to achieve goals. Managers provide opportunities for employees to practice newly acquired skills and put into practice what they’ve been learning.
  • Team leaders ask for feedback on their leadership. They discuss their communication, delegation, coaching, team facilitation, and planning with team members. Team leaders are constantly improving the effectiveness of team meetings and modeling meeting management for team members. Together, they are learning how to facilitate and contribute to meetings that are engaging and productive.
  • Leaders of projects conduct an after-action review at the completion of each project. Project team members discuss what happened, how it happened, the results, how that compares with what the project was intended to accomplish, successes and failures, and what should be done differently in the future. Project managers and team members put these lessons learned into practice on their next projects.
  • Organization-wide strategic planning is seen as an opportunity for learning. Participants are asked to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the planning process. Leaders and managers use that feedback to improve the organization’s strategic planning process, and this new process is standardized in the organization.
  • People start their workday with an attitude that can be described as fearless, looking forward to using their minds to contribute to the success and happiness of their organization.

There is a purpose to imagining a company in which people are managing minds. The current neuroscience theory is that we use the past as a scaffold to build an image of the future; the way we did things in the past helps determine what we will do in the future. But the biggest problem any organization has when it tries to change is the inability to imagine a different way of doing things. So imagining a company in which we are managing minds, doing things very differently from when we were managing hands, is necessary if we are to get from here to there, from today to a better future.


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