Why the future of work and leadership is about managing polarities

Soon, it will be that time again: the race to draw up your five-year plans! 2020 is finally on the horizon so we can indulge ourselves in the next number...

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July 16, 2019
New York

I took a happy stroll on nostalgia lane recently: one of our friends in the Bay area asked us for some quotes from Peter Hinssen’s former book: “The network always wins”. When I revisited it, it struck me how relevant these words and models still are for today’s big questions regarding the future of work. Let’s name a few:

‘So compensation (a.i. wage, benefits, etc) was money you got for what exactly? The freedom you gave up when joining the company? I’m not trying to diss the structures of the past, I think they worked brilliantly when we had companies that were built for executing plans that were designed for efficiency and scale.’ – Peter Hinssen, The Network Always Wins

The book was published in 2015, so if we already knew then, why haven’t we rebuilt our companies? Our strategies? Our ways of operating? Well, let’s give ourselves a break: it’s damn hard to rewire, restructure, to change basically. Yet the world has not slowed down and the future of work is today. It’s a continuous ‘work in progress’. Therefore, let me share some insights we picked up during our latest immersion program in Silicon Valley. Hopefully, they will help pinpointing the day after tomorrow high on the agenda today, instead of in 2025.

Polarities to manage

I loved reading Yuval Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’. It brings you back to reality: did we really make our lives easier? Did the invention of e-mail really make us happier? Isn’t it contradictory to use ‘productivity’ tools and never work more thereafter? Smartphone? Yes, same thing. Accelerating technological developments and global access only overstocked our toolbox at hand. It’s like the not so skilled handyman standing in the garage, searching in a toolbox for which screwdriver to pick, wondering why they need to put 27 different ones in there.

One of the speakers at our nexxworks Innovation Tours, Adam Leonard, in charge of Organizational Development at Google, puts it in a very straightforward manner: yes, this is the new reality. The jobs of leaders have drastically changed. They shouldn’t be focusing on solving problems. They ought to manage polarities. It’s like the ‘wise’ father in law saying ‘Hi, let’s try that screwdriver’ instead of ‘It IS that one’. It’s about constantly listening, mediating, steering the whole into new discoveries and experiments.

For example, the question is not: do we centralize our operations, or work decentralized? It’s both. It’s deciding what you put left, what you put right. It’s managing the balance between the two, adapting constantly on the waves of the changing environment. Same for personal leadership. At Google, one of the most important manager skills is: are you a good coach? Well what does coaching mean? For example: when are you direct to your coachee about a problem and when do you let him discover it themselves? It’s a polarity to be managed on a continuous basis, not a question that has one answer.

Static corporate structures and linear career paths will have to be reinvented for the age of networks. – Peter Hinssen, The Network Always Wins.

A design challenge

Let’s face the issue: our worlds are not used to polarities. They’re not designed as a network. Max Shkud, Head of Learning and Organization Development for Microsoft Silicon Valley, is thinking about exactly that question at his company: how do you redesign your company? Your organization charts? Your tools? He believes that you need to first thoroughly define what exactly you are designing for. Looking at the org charts of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, you name it: none of them is the same. So what is your strategy, how are you going to operationalize that and what role do you as a leader play in that? Where’s the blueprint of your organization? However you decide to design it, it will be in flux and you will have to manage the polarities in there, according to the strategy and culture you are pursuing as a whole. As Eisenhower said it: a plan is useless, yet planning is essential.

Copyright Carol Sanford Institute, All Rights Reserved


Connections was one of the keywords of the last trip. Every speaker we saw, touched the word in one way or another. How are you maintaining the connection with everybody within one company? Is it a Friday all-hands Q&A meeting (yes still happening at Google and Airbnb every single week), or storytelling your way through your organization and meanwhile helping it become a 1000 billion dollar company (Satya Nadella)?

Connections are important on 2 levels: internally and externally. Internally, making meaningful connections throughout your company has the potential to change your company culture. Max Shkud vouches for this viral effect: changing the mindset of 5 to 10% of your employees is enough to rewire your culture. Externally, because today’s toolbox has simply become too large to manage on your own. The economies of scale you get through opening up your company to external ideas, resources, technologies, brilliant minds, customers, … are simply impossible to create within a closed system.

The core fuel is trust. But building trust has to be genuine, rooted in an understanding of the rules of play in the networked society. – Peter Hinssen, The Network Always Wins

Hustle and internal agency

The hard part about all of this, is that it only works if you are a network in which everybody’s purpose is aligned individually, and collectively. Yes, another polarity. This type of system can only work if you can give and get trust from each other: between every single connection there is in your company. Straightforward? Not so much when your company has been designed for a command-and-control operation in which - as an employee - you were told to follow processes and guidelines and not to go loco with your screwdrivers, or thus wild ideas.

Basically, today’s road to continuous change requires a hustler’s mindset. Anyone in an organization can make a difference. Referring to Max’s model: everybody can define his or her locus of control and choose to go beyond that. Yet it requires self-direction, purpose and courage. A word not a lot of people get excited about. Why not focus on how rewarding this movement can be? At nexxworks, my favorite word is self-reflection. It’s the single one thing that excites me: when I see people taking initiative and I can silently step back, wave and support. Yet again, it requires courage. You have to be bold enough to cancel things, to try things, to be ‘Uncomfortably excited’. You have to live for progress, rather than for perfection.

Copyright Carol Sanford Institute, All Rights Reserved


So hierarchy is dead, long live hierarchy! Zappos CEO Tony Shieh was one of the most driven hustlers to vouch for a networked organization, emphasizing the importance of hierarchy: not a hierarchy of people but one of purpose. All of these points intensely impact not only what the word ‘work’ means for any individual, but also for the role of a ‘leader’. Yes, leaders are still necessary, but instead of designing the 2025 vision and then wait 5 years until it happens, they’ll have to do exactly the same as everyone else. Hustle. Connect. Keep the balance every single day. Creating ripple effects within the network, by small actions, meaningful stories and actions of trust.

“Low ego, high horsepower” is how it was summarized in our Future of Work tour in December 2018. No surprise that we called our 2019 program ‘Work in progress’. Here’s to hoping you’ll join and enjoy the ride with us!

Julie Vens - De Vos
Julie Vens - De Vos
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July 16, 2019
New York