“Unlearning stuff is so much harder than learning stuff”

In a dynamic and complex world, work (as we know it) doesn’t work. Organizations and their leaders are facing new challenges, trying to find answers. That’s what the next:pedition is all about: An innovative, hands-on learning lab, operating under the conditions of volatility, ambiguity and uncertainty. Over the course of one year, 21 participants will experiment their journey into new ways of working by attending five modules all over Europe. Marcus Druen, London-based consultant and leadership expert, shares his reflections about the kick-off session in Vienna:

What happens when you mix and match 21 participants from five different countries who want to revolutionize the way we work, lead and design organizations of the future? Well, nothing certain, that’s for sure!

I have just returned from the most amazing, compelling, daunting and catalyzing learning experience: In November 2017, the next:pedition started in Vienna with the first of five modules. The entire lab will last for one year, and yes – we will have to do real work in between modules, while running our business and performing in our “real” jobs.

Participant & Blogger Marcus Druen with next:guide Gerhard Hochreiter with their handcrafted purpose-sculptures.

The big “WHY”…

Why would we embark on this learning journey? Why invest so much time and energy?

Well, 100 years ago, things were different. We had typewriters and hierarchical pyramid-shaped organization structures. The typewriter has changed out of all recognition: These days, when you want to write a letter, you will just as likely do it with a supercomputer in your pocket. Not only that, but that device incorporates the enormous gramophone, paper maps and a compass, the wireless radio receiver, the newspaper, meditation teachers and even cash, and numerous things which the people of 100 years ago had never even thought of.

But when we take a look at the org chart, it’s essentially unchanged in that entire period! So the pain point here is that the world has changed beyond recognition, and our only way of understanding and structuring organizations is no longer fit for this new purpose (as pointed out by Aaron Dignan from TheReady in his blogpost). Organizations simply can’t keep up any more.

Fight your way up the hierarchy: Group interaction about the challenges of now:land… Oh, the drama!

A journey, we should all be on.

The challenge, therefore, is to move:

From now:land, operating under the paradigm of standardization, based on some version of the traditional hierarchical structure – to the next:land of organizing. A cluster of beliefs, practices, values and ways of working which are fit for your organization as it is in the present day.


The next:land of organizing

When you want to move from one continent to another, you need a map – and dwarfs and Giants has that map. Most consultancies, even the very famous ones, tend to break everything down to a 4-box model. As Albert Einstein said, you should make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler! And the world just is not simple enough for a 4-box model. The world, as understood by dwarfs and Giants, is VUCA: Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Under such conditions, a map is a much better tool to embark on a journey into uncharted territories…

Therefore, as part of the next:pedition, we were not being told what to do, where to go, what to think. On the contrary, we are working together with the next:guides to shape and understand our futures. In this learning programme, there are no ‘trainers’ and ‘students’ – it’s a relationship between guides and self-directing learners. It feels more like a playing and it has more in common with a laboratory than a corporate classroom.

Join the playground!

What is a “Holacracy”, anyway?

Moving to the unexplored areas of next:land will require us to adopt an alternative organizational practice than the hierarchical “command and control”-paradigm, and Holacracy is currently the promising contender: It’s a self management practice for purpose driven, responsive companies. Think of it like an alternative operating system to top-down hierarchy, and you’re on the right track.

Holacracy is about taking the principles of self-organization and individual improvement through rapid iteration, and scaling it up to a company level. In a VUCA world, we need to be able to adapt incredibly fast to keep up, so we need an adaptive culture, rather than concerning ourselves with structure. Find out more in this interview with John Bunch at Zappos or check out that video explaining Holacracy in less than 2 minutes:


Keeping that in mind, we formed our own “Holacracies” – the operating model for small groups of learners, working in this new paradigm to co-create the learning experience we need. We asked big, difficult, frustrating questions, like

“How do we become aware of our conflicts between the old paradigm and the new paradigm?”

We challenged each other, we thought together and shared ideas, we contributed to the shape of the learning, providing check-in format at the start of the day, energizers after lunch, thought exercises, and summaries at the end of the day. After all, how can a consultancy which believes top-down hierarchies are no longer fit for purpose then completely impose a structure and expect everyone else to accept it and fall in line? So, we used feedback loops, listened to each other, and were willing to hear what needed to be different.
At the centre of the content was systemic thinking; without it, ideas like Agile become fads and shallow tick box exercises – because your competitors do it, too: things we talk about for a while and play with, but which ultimately fade away quickly, and worse, ‘poison’ a potentially effective approach that no one wants to implement in future. With systemic thinking, you can really transform your company, because things do not simply flow down a company in the linear way we imagine them too. If we don’t understand and work with all the different types of relationship and linkages that make up the system, we cannot hope to change it.

Listen to each other: Learn, share, reflect.

From ego- to ecosystems: Learning by working within the new paradigm

next:pedition aims to have us experience these new paradigms, working within them as we plan to apply them to our own working situations. The learning environment faces us with the challenges we will experience in the workplace.

This was a very emotional and challenging experience; seeing ourselves react and respond out of our programming from years of working in hierarchy was both funny and also alarming. There were moments where we struggled hard to abandon the “Look at me and my ideas” approach which is a key part of most of our success in a competitive and hierarchical workplace. We found it hard to let go of the need to “win”, and to push our ideas to prominence at the expense of others, because that’s what takes you up the hierarchy. Where there is no hierarchy, there is no reward for this behaviour, but that doesn’t make it easy to leave behind! We did manage, however; we recognized the alpha behaviour that was going on, and how incompatible it was with what we were aiming at, and we took a step back. The next day, one of our groups facilitated a clear process, rooted in design thinking, and we all managed to hold our egos back at the crucial moments, and we experienced that change from ego- to ecosystem, and the great results it got us. By creating the conditions, by providing a structure and holding the boundaries hard, we managed a culture change in the here-and-now, and it was one of the most creatively inspiring sessions of thinking I have ever experienced.

We also did some individual work on purpose, aiming to appreciate what organisational level purpose is about by understanding our personal purpose. My own purpose is to transform myself continually, to transcend some of the things that have held me back from my early life, and to challenge, inspire, and act as a sparring partner for others on their journeys. At the organisational level, it is to create my own virtual transformation practice where I work together with peers and experts and change agents from my client organisations, role modelling through the way we lead our own practice, and creating conditions that facilitate transformation in the system. My exercise buddy listened to all of this, and then prototyped it for me as a sculpture. Now, when I described this, I never used the word love, but love was clearly something which came across strongly to him as an aspect, because love featured very strongly in the sculpture. That was a striking insight for me; he was clearly right, but I had not thought of it in that way. Perhaps my mental models (as a man) were coming to the surface…?

“Unlearning stuff is so much harder than learning stuff!”

Game changing experiences

At the closing of the module, it became clear that a couple of our group might not continue with the rest of the journey; they loved it, but had other things happening in their lives that made them unsure that they could commit. What surprised me was how much I didn’t want them to leave; this had been the most compelling learning experience at least of the last ten years, and I didn’t want to disturb what we had created, and have to rebuild that early-stage equilibrium. That’s a huge testament to what we had achieved in a few days.

Perhaps the most inspiring moment was when the three next:guides from dwarfs and Giants themselves had a retrospective session in front of us. There was, as you may be able to guess, some disagreement and challenge, and that was tough, because there were also dG employees, network partners and clients in the room. There was clearly some challenge about whether to be smart consultants, or rather honest, open learners. The question was put to the clients in the room; do you want the dG sub-system in the room to be smart consultants who put on a polished face and provide answers, or do you want honest, humble equals, learning as they journey with you? Everyone wanted the latter. There can be no greater recommendation than that; hard-nosed business people, after just four days, wanting something so different from their now:land.

The 3 next:guides: Gerald Mitterer, Gerhard Hochreiter, Matthias Lang (dwarfs and Giants)

I can’t wait to see where we go next.

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