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10/30/2013
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Hacking Human Potential—Takeaways from the Quick MIX

We recently ran an open brainstorming session we call a “Quick MIX” focused on generating bold ideas around the themes of the recently-launched SAP Unlimited Human Potential Challenge. The question on the table: What is the one thing you’d change to help organizations unleash and organize human potential across boundaries?

Over the course of a week, MIXers from around the world submitted dozens of ideas for tackling the twin challenges of the Unlimited Human Potential M-Prize: 1) how do organizations unleash human capacity—by designing environments and systems for work that inspire individuals to contribute their full imagination, initiative, and passion every day, and 2) how do we create value for all by aggregating human capability—leveraging new social, mobile, and digital technologies (and the principles behind them) to activate, enlist, and organize talent across boundaries?

While the Quick MIX yielded a remarkable diversity of ideas, several powerful themes emerged. I’ll share some of them here, but it’s worth spending some time exploring the individual entries here. We’d like to thank all of the participants in the Quick MIX for their insightful contributions—and we encourage them and the wider community to build on these ideas as entries in the SAP Unlimited Human Potential Challenge.

Human Organizations for Human Beings

First things first: the Quick MIX entry that got the most traction with the community (and racked up the most Likes and Tweets) was Schalk Viljoen’s exhortation to put purpose at the core. The most powerful thing you can do to unlock human potential, he argues, is to connect people to what is most deeply human—our desire for meaning, our yearning to do work that truly matters, to make a real difference in the world. Both Schalk and Jacob Vaidyan made a case for the power of purpose as a unifying force over rules and micro-managing as a controlling force. In this context, the crucial work of leadership becomes articulating and advocating for a truly compelling sense of purpose—and constantly connecting the day-to-day work to that higher purpose.

When your purpose is creating an organization as human as the human beings inside of it—one that inspires every person’s full imagination, passion, and initiative every day—the work of leadership undergoes a radical revision. Perhaps the most important quality in a leader in this context is the capacity for empathy. As Jonathan Becher puts it, “imagine a world where people listen more, talk less; care more, push less; serve more, and sell less. The potential is limitless.”

Marcia E. Walker goes further still: how might organizations and leaders institutionalize the capacity for empathy? Her suggestion: create a Fulbright-style exchange program for budding leaders to develop a deep understanding of other cultures, perspectives, approaches—and a powerful appreciation for what makes us all human.

Several contributors focused on the power of trust. Too many leaders ask the question “how do we get more trust” (and get more out of people)? But the more powerful question is: “How do I trust people more?” Helen Dwight makes the radically simple suggestion that developing a genuine culture of trust starts with actually caring about your people—investing in understanding them, drawing them out, connecting them together.

Invert the Pyramid, Demolish Silos, Kill Bureaucracy

If so much of organizational life goes against the grain of human nature, that’s because it was designed that way. The “modern” organization was invented over a century ago to solve for very different challenges than we face today: to maximize standardization, specialization, predictability, and control. Revving up the engines of mass production required strapping flesh and blood, freethinking human beings into the straightjacket of institutional obedience. While that factory mentality is incredibly successful when it comes to scaling efficiency, it is exactly the wrong design for unleashing and mobilizing the human potential.

No wonder, then, that so many of the Quick MIX entries focused on dismantling the industrial organizational model, reducing the performance (and spiritual) drag of top-down control systems, and eradicating silos, walls, rules, organizational charts, job titles, bosses, and meetings.

“Too crazy?” asked Pablo Delfino in proposing a democratic system for electing all managers and leaders. If not CYOB (Choose Your Own Boss), at the very least it’s time for BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), argues Dainius Jocas in his entry, “Tools. Not Rules.” It’s the ultimate low-hanging fruit: eliminate the energy-sapping rigmarole of “dealing with quirks of the infrastructure” and just get people “the best tools for the task at hand” (and understand that those are often the tools they already have in hand).

Other entries went further still: replace top-down control systems with peer review and self-management (see Morning Star’s remarkable approach to managing without managers); swap out the traditional, formal pyramid with a “natural” hierarchy where status and influence derive from the ability to mobilize people and get great things done together, rather than from the ability to play politics (see W.L. Gore’s advanced practice of “natural leadership”).

Julie Barrier offered up two approaches to eliminating the organizational toxicity that emanates from all the jockeying for position. First, create a cultural prohibition against individual credit and set people up to “succeed together.” Second, swap out pyramid-fortifying, silo-strengthening titles for “visionary, inspirational, purpose-driven” titles that effectively put everyone on the same team. Julie’s willing to go first: she’ll give up “Senior Director of Marketing” for “Ambassador for Helping the World Run Better & Improving People’s Lives.” That may not fit on a business card, but it might go a long way to energizing her working life and changing the way she connects with people across and beyond the organization.

Redesign Work

The Quick MIX is teeming with ideas around redesigning work to match up to what really makes people tick. Greg Marcus proposed a sanity check when it comes to hard-driving, competition-fueled work cultures. How about putting organizationally-sanctioned limits on the anytime-anywhere approach to work so that when people are “on duty,” they bring all their energies and passion and capacities to bear. Along with freedom from the time clock, people must be freed from the cubicle and the corner office, argues Ben Christensen. If you expect people to work creatively, flexibly, and across boundaries, every workspace should reflect those principles in its design.

When it comes to redesigning work to unleash human potential, nothing is more important than the capacity to invent, to try new things, to take risks (and to learn quickly from the failures that accompany them). In other words, say Edna Pasher and Camille Berment, organizations and leaders must promote a culture of experimentation by both creating enabling mechanisms for entrepreneurial behavior and by truly embracing failure as an inevitable and powerful learning experience.

If you’re really serious about unleashing the entrepreneur in every employee and inviting everyone in your organization to play a vital role, you have to get serious about rethinking your approach to evaluating, measuring, supporting and rewarding people.

Bjarte Bogsnes takes on the traditional performance evaluation and its narrow focus on metrics and targets. How do you take into account how an individual is living the organization’s values? How do you reward stretch as much as hitting targets? Remember Einstein, says Bjarte: “’Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’ Measurement can be a good servant, but is a lousy master.” Amen, says Ramesh Ramakrishnan in his entry promoting using the latest social technology to open up appraisals and create dynamic two-way feedback loops between workers and managers. Wendie Balzano and Jeroen Ermers build on this idea with their proposals for shifting the focus from individual to group performance with peer-based appraisal and reward systems.

Who understands the drivers of contribution, performance, and rewards better than game designers? Both Mario Herger and Kai Goerlich offered up bold approaches to gamifying work. Kai suggests setting up all projects as challenges in which any interested employee can partake and enlist collaborators. Teams might work in parallel and all results would be openly shared. It’s not only a truly enlivening and engaging way to work, but just might change the way organizations solve problems and collaborate.

Invent a New Architecture of Participation

Many of the entries quickly zeroed in on the core challenge of lighting up the organization edge-to-edge and giving everybody in it the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution and to have a real say in its future.

Many of these architectures and tools already exist, why not use them? That was the suggestion of Carmen Choy and Adel Lagha who offered up clever twists on crowdsourcing and hackathon approaches to solving problems and fostering innovation inside organizations.

Stephen Remedios weighed in with a compelling idea for getting “the best people together to solve the hardest problems”—wherever they may be in the world. His entry was a riff on the “dream team”/Manchester United concept. How do you create crack teams from around the world to solve some of the biggest problems in the world? That might work in tandem with Reuven Gorsht’s bold idea for building talent marketplaces based on capabilities, experience, and passion.

Some of the boldest thinking in the Quick MIX centered around reimagining organizations entirely as dynamic social systems and value-creating networks. Martin Zustak envisions “ecosystems with fuzzy boundaries, deeply integrating their employees and customers and becoming ‘societies’ in their own right.” Stephen Remedios suggests a social-network inspired community of "friends of the corporation" who might connect and collaborate with an organization on an ad hoc basis. And Vikram Nagendra makes a case for promoting "every aspect of diversity to extract maximum potential." How? Not just by laying out the welcome mat for new ideas and different sorts of people in the organization, but by creating "energizing social spaces" that engage the broader ecosystem of potential contributors, partners, and friends beyond the organization. "Only when everyone from all parts of the world feel that they belong together and their individual contributions matter, will their true potential be unleashed."

What are you or your organization doing to unleash and organize human potential across boundaries? By sharing a real-world story or contributing a bold idea in the SAP Unlimited Human Potential Challenge, you can help us make a dent in a big problem—making all organizations fit for the future (and fit for human beings).

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francisco-boerr's picture

This is a great post! I'm helping organizations in Latin America to escape from the client centricity paradigm which -from our perspective- lead to most of the structural problems that we're dealing with under the title of "unleashing human potential" or stuff like that. Thanks to MIX and people like you!

Francisco @deinnovatie