What do you think your employees would say if you asked them why they work in your business?
Be honest, what would they say? How many would talk about the benefits you offer? How many might recount the semi random way that they came to apply for a job in your business because someone they know knew a man who knew a woman who said that you needed someone? What percentage do you think would have no answer at all? Would, in fact, have no idea of what an answer could be other than... well, you pay me?
If you like you could go and ask. I'd love to hear what people say. But for now I'll share with you what I think the answer really should be. What it should be for everyone who chooses to work inside a business. Any business.
The history of humanity has been the history of technology. It's almost impossible to imagine humans without it and entirely impossible to imagine it without humans. First with simple tools and later with sophisticated machines, we have found ways to augment ourselves. Thanks to these machines humans can outpace the fastest land animals, dive deeper than a blue whale, fly at supersonic speeds and survive in the vacuum of space. With machines, built to enhance us, we have become literally superhuman.
This is so absolutely natural, so common place, that we hardly remark on it. It's just the normal order of things. We build machines that enhance humans. That's what we do. That's what it means to be us.
Of course, the concept of a machine can be broader than what we tend to think of. Very recently I was reminded of a quote by the architect, Le Corbusier, who said:
"A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on."
A house, like other machines, enhances the humans who use it. I could live in a field or a cave, but as humans we have designed machines that make living far, far easier.
With this expanded concept in mind, and with the single purpose of human enhancement as the reason for the existence of machines, I noticed an odd, troubling outlier. If humans build machines to enhance themselves, why is it that our organisations so often make us feel less than superhuman?
"The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office."
- Robert Frost
If a house is a machine for living in and an armchair is a machine for sitting in, an organisation must be a machine for working in. Which brings me to the answer I'd want to hear from anyone working for me if I were to ask them why they work in my business.
I'd want them to say: "I work here because this business, this machine, makes me better at what I do. When I come to work I feel stronger, faster, more powerful. This machine works for me."
You know the image that comes to mind? Iron Man. When Tony Stark steps into the Iron Man suit the machine responds to him, each piece snapping into place like mechanical poetry, all culminating in the helmet smoothly gliding down to cover that signature goatee. He looks up, eyes glowing with power. It's on.
That is how I want people to feel when they arrive at their place of work;. that the machine they choose to work inside enhances them, makes them more than they could be outside.
Sadly many people don't feel that way. The one machine that isn't built to enhance humans seems to be the one we spend most of waking hours inside. A machine that we don't use so much as get used by.
I know that this is an abstract concept but it's worth a moment's pause because if the machine is using the people then something has gone wrong in the relationship between humans and machines. When we create job roles and organisational processes we're too often designing for the needs of the machine and we expect the humans to fit themselves to those needs, not the other way around.
Before you know it the entire system is built with the machine in mind. So all that's left is a sense that even if this machine isn't making me more powerful, I kinda have to work here because, well, that's what you do. This isn't a partnership, it's a hostage situation! People who feel they have no choice but to work for someone, and it may as well be you, are dependent, trapped. This isn't what an employer wants.
What's more, it won't last.
Increasingly humans can access powerful tools outside of organisations. Increasingly we are doing so. Once upon a time to access information, computers, other people, and so on, we would either have to be insanely wealthy or join an organisation to tap into its resources. Now we don't. Now we can do this, often more easily, outside of the machine.
When working inside an organisation becomes a choice rather than a necessity the first people to leave are the most talented, most ambitious, and most important to the survival of the machine itself. Institutional knowledge is forgotten, cultural linchpins pulled out, and crisis is not far behind.
It doesn't have to be this way.
"A computer is a bicycle for the mind."
- Steve Jobs
What if we switched things around? What if we designed the machine as a tool for the humans who work inside of it? What if your organisation was like a bicycle for your work?
When looked at this way the role of the organisation becomes beautifully clear; to be a machine for working in that, like the Iron Man suit or the rocket ship, submarine, or sports car, gives its humans superpowers. No longer designed to use people but to be used by them. To enhance them. And your job, as the owner of that machine, is to upgrade it, over and over again, so that those who work inside of it, the users of that machine, find that they really would never want to work anywhere else.
I don't see this as optional. The future of human work is creative, personal, based around classically human skills. That’s because the stuff that isn't essentially human won't be done by humans anymore. In this world, in the human future, compliance and box ticking won't be enough. True engagement in the form of a partnership between humans who want to do great work and the organisations that can enhance them will be the norm.
Don’t wait. This work will take time. Give yourself that time. Begin to reimagine relationship between humans and the machines they work inside. And be ready for the future.