The past and the future of work

by eskokilpi

The most modern definition of work is “an exchange in which the participants benefit from the interaction”. Interestingly, cooperation is also described as “an exchange in which the participants benefit from the interaction”.

The way we view work life is influenced by the way we view the world. This view rests on the most fundamental assumptions we make about reality. In the present competitive view of the world, we often think that the most capable are those who are the most competitive, and accordingly that competition creates and secures capability and long-term viability in the world (of work).

But what if high performance is incorrectly attributed to competition and is more a result of diversity, self-organizing communication and non-competitive processes of cooperation?

Competitive processes lead to the handicapping of the system that these processes are part of. This is because competitive selection leads to exclusion: something or somebody, the losers, are left outside. Leaving something out from an ecosystem always means a reduction of diversity. The resulting less diverse system is efficient in the short-term, competition seems to work, but always at the expense of long-term viability. Sustainability, agility and complex problem solving require more diversity, not less.

As losers are excluded from the game, they are not allowed to learn. The divide between winners and losers grows constantly. Losers multiply as winning behaviors are replicated in the smaller winners’ circles and losing behaviors are replicated in the bigger losers’ circles. This is why, in the end, the winners have to pay the price of winning in one-way or another. The bigger the divide of inequality, the bigger is the price that finally has to be paid. The winners end up having to take care of the losers, or two totally different cultures are formed, as is happening in many places today. Psychologically, competitive games create shadow games of losers competing at losing. These start-ups are trained in jails and the pitching takes place on streets very far away from the Sand Hill Road.

The games we play have been played under the assumption that the unit of survival is the player, meaning the individual or a company. However, at the time of the Anthropocene, the reality is that the unit of survival is the player in the game being played. Following Darwinian rhetoric, the unit of survival is the species in its environment. Who wins and who loses is of minor importance compared to the decay of the (game) environment as a result of the actions of the players.

In games that were paradoxically competitive and cooperative at the same time, losers would not be eliminated from the game, but would be invited to learn from the winners. What prevents losers learning from winners is our outdated zero-sum thinking and the winner-take-all philosophy.

In competitive games the players need to have the identical aim of winning the same thing. Unless all the players want the same thing, there cannot be a genuine contest. Human players and their contributions are, at best, too diverse to rank. They are, and should be, too qualitatively different to compare quantitatively. Zero-sum games were the offspring of scarcity economics. In the post-industrial era of abundant creativity and contextuality, new human-centric approaches are needed.

Before Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations” and came out with the idea of the invisible hand, he had already written something perhaps even more interesting for our time. In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” he argued that a stable society was based on sympathy. He underlined the importance of a moral duty — to have regard for your fellow human beings

Cooperative processes are about interdependent individuals and groups defining and solving problems in a shared context. Individuals competing on job markets may be one of the historic mistakes we have inherited from the industrial age. It made sense a long time ago but now we should think differently.

Interaction creates capability beyond individuals. Cooperative performance can be more than what could ever be predicted just by looking at the performance of the parties involved in a competitive game. The higher performance and robustness are emergent properties of cooperative interaction. They are not attributable to any of the parts of the system or to functioning of the markets.

Networks provide problem-solving capability that results directly from the richness of communication and the amount of connectivity. What happens in interaction between the parts creates a reality that cannot be seen in the parts or even all of the parts. What we have called the “whole” is an emergent pattern of interaction, not the sum of the parts.

The same principle explains why we have financial crises that no one planned and wars that no one wants. On the other hand, the great societal promise is that interaction in wide-area networks, with enough diversity, can solve problems beyond the awareness of the individuals involved.

What defines most problems today is that they are not isolated and independent but connected and systemic. To solve them, a person has to think not only about what he believes the right answer is, but also about what other people think the right answers might be. Following the rhetoric of game theory: what each person does affects and depends on what everyone else will do and vice versa.

Most managers and decision makers are still unaware of the implications of the complex, responsive properties of the world we live in. Enterprises are not organized to facilitate management of interactions, only the actions of parts taken separately. Even more, compensation structures normally rewards improving the actions of parts, not their interactions.

Work that humans do used to be a role, now it is a task, but it is going to be a relationship: work is interaction between interdependent people. The really big idea of 2016 is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the center. The mission is to see action within relationships.

Amyarta Sen has written that wealth should not be measured by what we have but what we can do. As we engage in new relationships and connect with thinking that is different from ours, we are always creating new potentials for action. In competitive/cooperative games the winners would be all those whose participation, comments and contributions were incorporated in the development of the game.