Vitalizing Work Design: Implementing A Developmental Philosophy — Part 1

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Photo by LYCS Architecture on Unsplash

As I communicate with business leaders around the world, I never cease to be amazed at the faith and courage with which they leap into a new approach to improving their businesses. I am equally shocked at how little understanding they have of how to assess any particular approach and the potential it may offer. Many programs are adopted in the name of “a learning organization”, “continuous improvement”, etc. which suggest new improved results and improved work environments. Many of these are really only repackaged or redecorated versions of traditional methods these leaders are seeking to escape. It finally occurred to me that leaders do not have a set of guidelines for assessing whether the method they have chosen has a sound base in its design. This article offers a structure for assessing the likelihood of a given approach taking an organization toward or away from becoming more developmental. That is, more capable of continual evolution toward higher order capacities and results.

There is a common set of principles among most so called “new work designs” that is likely to lead an organization away from becoming more developmental in its approach to work. These principles cause limitations from the outset in many of the same ways that traditional work systems do. The traditional as well as most new designs are rooted in behaviorist philosophy. Behaviorism itself has a limiting set of principles and methods when applied to business environments. Behaviorism is the branch of psychology associated with Pavlov’s work when he discovered that dogs salivated when the feeding bell rang, and with B.F. Skinner and his study of rats in mazes. This legacy offered us a psychology that is based on the study of lower animals. Despite this, much of this body of work has found application in the workplace. This would be fine if our organizations were operated by rats and chimpanzees.

Exploration of a few of the tenets of work design based on behavioral psychology can help us to understand the limitations of the principles offered and why so much potential cannot be realized through these designs. As a means of contrast, we will examine the principles underlying a Developmental Philosophy — a philosophy that is based on open systems designs and works on the development of whole persons. A Developmental Philosophy starts from seeing people (and businesses) as having open-ended potential to develop themselves and their capacities to do and to be. The tendency however is to become static in our work and our approach to work, especially when we are part of a large system. A Developmental Philosophy leads to work designs that continuously evolve the way of working and expand the potential of value-adding processes as well as the potential of organization members to evolve that potential.

Six Improvement Targets Of Work Design

As a way to compare the different underlying principles, we will compare six universal arenas in which businesses seek to be successful in work design (Bennett: 1956). The first three, Interaction, Concentration, and Freedom, are related to particular outcomes or results that are sought from a work redesign or design. The second three, Expansion, Identity, and Order, are related to capabilities that must be built among the members of the organization for the work design to be effectively realized.

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In part two, we’ll look at each of the first three improvement targets individually, as seen from a developmental philosophy.

About Carol Sanford

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Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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