The Organisation of the Future: 5 Roles We Need Now

My mum has a photo that she pulls out from time to time, shot in the early 90's, from when she looked out a window into our front yard and saw a six year old me lying in a cardboard box, apple in hand, gazing vacantly off into the sky. I was born navel gazing - I literally love to think. I also love organisations (well, systems generally), but am frequently surprised by how little time and how little investment is given to deep thinking in organisations.

Here are the five new thinking roles that I’m convinced that the highest performing organisations of the future will have:

The Philosopher

Once a human being’s base level needs are consistently met and he’s not fighting for his survival, his mind turns to existential questions: “Why am I here? What should I be doing with my life? What is genuinely meaningful?” Now, there are no easy answers to these questions, so most people either avoid answering them by distracting themselves (The Bachelorette, anyone?) or numbing out (too much food, alcohol, work, exercise, shopping etc), or they give themselves a ready-made solution that they don’t have to think too hard about (religion as opposed to well considered faith, for example). Man’s desire to live a meaningful life is innate, however, and the organisation of the future recognises that people wrestle with these questions, and that work can be a deeply meaningful experience for people if it is set up well. The Philosopher helps leaders (and the Remora Fish - see below) to construct an organisation that contributes to people’s search for meaning and purpose. 

The Futurist

The Futurist is the person who is looking more than 5 years down the track, seeing ‘the future’. She can perceive trends (not just in the market that she’s engaged in, but across economies, demographics, governance etc), is up to date with cutting edge thinking and STEM advancements, and is able to position the organisation well in advance to take advantage of where things are going.

The reason many organisations don’t yet have this role is because you can’t see the return on the Futurist in the short term, and also because we (unrealistically) expect senior managers to perform this role. The day to day reality for most senior managers is fire fighting and people conundrums and politics. The Futurist has a very particular way of seeing the world that is not common - there is a level of conceptual comprehension that a normal senior manager is unlikely to have, let alone also have the time to devote to positioning the organisation to take advantage of it.

The Remora Fish (AKA the Systems Thinker)

For those of you who don’t know, the remora fish is a fish that survives by attaching itself to another big fish, like a shark. It eats off the shark’s dead skin and, by doing so, keeps the shark clean and healthy. It also eats a whole load of the shark’s waste, which feels fitting, because the Remora Fish in an organisation is a systems thinker who floats between departments (the sub systems), exploring their interfaces and solving cross functional issues and dealing with a whole heap of crap. This is the person focused ‘on’ the business - how the whole is designed, how the whole is performing, where adjustment is required. The Remora Fish keeps the system well and on track.

The reason many organisations don’t yet have a role like this is because people get precious about their patch. They don’t want someone else coming in and ‘improving’ it, because it’s in our human nature to assume that:

  1. someone else saying that something of ours could be improved upon is an indictment on our performance, or, heaven forbid, our very self; or
  2. we think that we know the most about whatever it is that we’ve been put in charge of. (Note: We don’t).

Our patch sits within a whole, and the Remora Fish is focused on the performance of the whole. We can’t genuinely ‘know’ anything, without first accurately comprehending the context that it exists within, and the Remora Fish is the person with the context.

The Dissenter

The literature has been telling us for years that task conflict is healthy and necessary… and yet, it’s in most people’s nature to avoid conflict and take the path of least resistance. If you’re an especially strong personality, it’s not that you’re right all the time, it’s just that other people let you have your way because it’s easier than the alternative. The Dissenter is an organisation-sanctioned challenger. Someone who says, “Why?”, “But what about?” or “Have you considered?” They help make your thinking and planning robust, by subjecting it to critical thinking. Action gives us the illusion of progress, and organisations routinely prioritise ill-considered action over taking a small amount of time to deeply think about things. The Dissenter is the momentary handbrake that makes your thinking better, and your action more powerful. The Dissenter is the antidote to yes-men and alphas and untouchables; they make what’s really happening explicit. They’re not normally very popular, but, by jove, they really should be because of the value that they add.

The Therapist

I have a lot of theories about the impact that someone’s level of psychological functioning has on everyone around them, but it is most notable in organisations: the higher up the ladder you go, the greater the impact of your unresolved wounding on the performance of the organisation. A conflict-avoidant CEO creates a conflict-avoidant organisation, and a conflict-avoidant organisation will always be underperforming. A manager with a high need for control will (generally unwittingly, but sometimes not) stifle creativity and original thinking in the people that work for them, thus killing innovation and market-relevance. I once worked for an organisation where I speculated a lot about the retentive type of person that the CEO might be, on the basis that I wasn’t allowed to eat at my desk or hang a jacket off the back of my chair...I remember that, on hearing that edict, I wailed “I’m not a robot, or a preschooler!” before starting an earnest conversation with my colleagues about the healthy effect of civil disobedience on societal progress.

Organisations are collections of human beings, and human beings exist somewhere on a spectrum of low psychological functioning to high psychological functioning. We should be realistic about the fact that everyone’s a bit screwed up, and this will have an impact on the people in our lives, including other people at work. Personal development should be a mandatory part of every leader’s job description: self-awareness cannot be optional when you’re leading people, because of the unnecessary harm that one un-self-aware human being can do to another. The Therapist exists to counsel the CEO, executive team, and any other people managers.

The In-house Think Tank

Summing up:

  • the Philosopher is focused up, on questions of meaning and purpose;
  • the Futurist is focused far out into the future, to see where we could be going;
  • the Remora Fish is focused on the business (marrying the macro and the micro) to ensure that it is performing as optimally as it can in the current moment;
  • the Dissenter is focused at things, critically analysing them, to ensure that all of our action is as intentional as it should be and as powerful as it could be; and
  • the Therapist is focused inwards, helping us to reconcile who we are on our insides with the way we operate in the world.

Again, we’re often quite naive about what can be achieved by leaders in organisations - we either expect all of this kind of thinking to be done by them and then actioned by them, or we ignore the need for this kind of thinking entirely. But powerful thinking requires time and space and, often, quiet… for me, it also is facilitated by being almost horizontal on a couch or in a beanbag, which aren't yet usual positions to find your colleagues in, in most workplaces. It requires expertise in analysis and comprehension and application, which aren’t typical skill sets. It requires a long termism that is often at odds with the short termism of your one year development plan or annual reporting to shareholders.

I think the organisation of the future has an in-house think tank. They would be deeply embedded in the business, be trusted advisors to the senior leadership team, and share thinking that could help the business make sound decisions. Imagine getting to be the Galileo of Google or the DaVinci of Deloitte… to someone like me, that would be bliss!

Go forth and think deeply.

Anna Stanford