The Power of Ten Show

Aaron Dignan ‘Brave New Work’

John Carter
April 23, 2019
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The Power of Ten Show
April 23, 2019

Aaron Dignan ‘Brave New Work’

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Show notes

You can find Aaron Dignan on Twitter as @aarondignan  and at The Ready.

You can find notes and links from his excellent book on the Brave New Work website.Aaron also wrote a Medium post explaining The OS Canvas and you‘ll find plenty of other writing from The Ready folks there. For those of you interested in the Simple Sabotage Field Manual from the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) that we mention at the beginning of the interview, page 28, _General Interference with Organizations and Production_, is the page to flip to before facepalming at the state of organisations today.

Episode Transcript

This transcript was created using the awesome, Descript. It may contain minor errors.
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Andy: Hello, and welcome to Power of Ten on This is HCD. My name is Andy Polaine, a designer, educator, writer, and currently group director of client evolution at Fjord.

He helps companies large and small adopt new forms of self-organisation and dynamic teaming and is also the author of an excellent book called: Brave New Work.  I’m actually going to start by reading the intro to the epilogue of the book, because it frames the rationale for everything else.  Deep down, I think we all have a pretty good idea of what will happen if we don’t change how we work.  We’re watching it unfold in slow-motion right now, massive bureaucracies lacking conscience of purpose, startups meant to disrupt the status quo, unintentionally entrenching it, rampant inequality, wage stagnation.  Workers displaced by technology funded with the profits from their labour.  Nationalism hacked democracy.  

The stock market driven more by policy and punditry than performance.  The coup de gras, accelerating climate change that threatens the safety and security of billions of people.  All of it, the result of our mindless adherence to the ways of the past, to an operating system that fundamentally misunderstands complexity and human nature.  This isn’t the uplifting capitalism of a burdening economy.  It’s advanced capitalism at its best, and phony capitalism at its worst.  That future doesn’t work for me.  Somehow, we have to reconcile that 20th century bureaucracy and capitalism got us here, but it won’t get us where we need to go unless they and we evolve.  

At the core of Aaron’s book: Brave New Work is the OS canvas.  Although the epilogue I just read is really the call to arms, the OS canvas is the structural way to approach it.  The way it’s structured is, it’s got 12 boxes in it, so it’s very easy, to just put up on the wall.  Those boxes are purpose, so how we orient and steer.  Authority, how we share power and make decisions, structure, how we organise and team.  Strategy, how we plan and prioritise.  Resources, how we invest our time and money.  Innovation, how we learn and evolve.  Workflow, how we divide and do the work.  

Meetings, how we convene and coordinate.  Information, how we share and use data.  Membership, how we define and cultivate relationships.  Mastery, how we grow and mature.  Compensation, how we pay and provide.  In the OS canvas, what he does is then look through these tensions and practices.  What’s the tension?  What is it that’s preventing you from being position, or people-positive, or complexity conscience in either one of these?  That might be something like, we spend too much time trying to predict the future.  

Then what are the practice that you might do as a response?  Some of those things are little experiments that you can do.  Working public, by making workflow and work in progress visible to other teams.  That could be something around the tension in meetings and communications.  I’m reading here these tension and practice cards that I also got when I bought the book, which is very nice.  You can see them also on the ready.  I’ll put some links in the show notes.  Hell, Aaron, welcome to the show.  

Aaron: Thanks for having me.  

Andy: I’ve just read the opening bit of your epilogue, which is really about painting a pretty dark and dismal future of work, which I think most of us can probably relate to as well.   I’m guessing, was that the trigger for the book?  Or how did you get to where you are now?  

Aaron: Yes, it’s funny actually, I wanted to write the fourth part of the book, that epilogue before I wanted to write the rest of it.  I think I had to write the rest of it to get the excuse to say the things at the end.  Really, I don’t know, I just feel like we’re in a very important moment right now, not just this year but maybe this decade, where we can see the ways of the past failing us, these bureaucracies, these hierarchies, these old versions of power failing us ecologically, failing us politically, failing us socially.  Even in business, not really living up to everything we think it can be.  

It does feel like we have a choice, right, to recede back and into the ways of the past and double-down on some of the traditions and ways of working that have got us here, or to embark on something new, or at least something that’s a little bit novel to most of us.  That was sort of where my head was at, that the book was maybe a chance to try to move things, nudge things in one direction versus the other.  I came to this really, I would say almost accidentally, I mean, I have followed questions my entire career.  I have followed my curiosity.  

While I used to be curious about technology and disruption and things that were changing culture in the world, I have become more and more enamoured with the change itself in the last decade of my life, and our inability to adapt at scale.  Our inability to have important institutions continually evolve and refine themselves in a way that feels both strategically relevant, but also humanist.  That’s been my journey as basically going from interested in the things causing the change, to interested in the change itself, and how we can navigate that as founders, as leaders, as team members, and just as citizens, frankly.  

Andy: Yes.  I’ve had a similar path.  I used to design interactive things, then I switched to think about organisations, actually, which brought me into service design and then thinking about designing services.  Then I’ve come back to organisations.  Actually, more recently in the last few years realised that most of the conversations I was having with clients weren’t really about their organisation as such, it was all people stuff.  Most of the things that got in the way was people stuff, as well.  It was quite a lot of fear mostly, I think.  Well-founded fear.  There’s a bit in the book.  I’ve seen you talk about this, about the sabotage document, can you just very briefly talk about this?  It was just remarkable.  

Aaron: Yes.  Several years ago, this document was declassified and basically, what it is, is it’s a guide to simple sabotage that was written by the precursor to the CIA in the United States.  Their desire was to help people who were inside enemy lines, to slow down and destabilise and ultimately undermine businesses that were on the other side of the war.  They crafted these recommendations, and because they haven’t been declassified for decades and decades, when we finally got to read them, everybody that runs in the circles I run in was flabbergasted because it describes these things that we all do at work all the time.  

It talks about creating committees to make decisions and making them as large as possible and relitigating decisions after the meeting, around the water cooler, or Slack, or what have you, and haggling over the precise wording of communications.  All of these things that are normal inside large organisations today.  I just remarket the idea that somehow in the last 80 years, work has become indistinguishable from sabotage and how odd and very bizarre that is.  

Andy: It is.  I’ve read it and I’ve worked in several large organisations.  I’ll put a link to it in the show notes because it’s kind of hilarious and also, face-palming to read it.  Going back to just talking about people, you talk about complexity conscious, which I wrote about recently too, and this difference between complicated and complex.  Also, being people-positive.  Those are the two threads that run all the way through the OS canvas that you’ve created.  Can you just talk about what you mean about those two things?  

Aaron: Yes.  It was right from the get-got with the book, I was struggling to help articulate what are the mindsets and the foundational understandings that this gaggle of companies that I followed seemed to have.  It felt to me like when you went into the worlds of agile or lean or new ways of working, there were just so many things to wrap your head around, different terms and phrases and ideas, and principles, and heuristics and methods.  It just felt like a lot.  What I wanted to do is really distil all of that down to a couple of mindsets that maybe would help you make decisions even without all of that lexicon and all that backstory.  

What I found, basically, when I looked at all the methods and practices and principles that these companies were using were that they all really came from one of two places.  Either a people-positive place, which is the belief that people generally are worthy of trust and respect.  That they are motivated not by carrots and sticks, but by autonomy and master and purpose and connectedness and all the things that we’ve heard in self-determination theory and psychology over the years.  That people are chameleons, right?  That we adapt to the large degree to the environment we’re in.  It’s not really the fish that are the problem, it’s the aquarium.

The people-positive idea, it really makes you make decisions that give people the benefit of the doubt.  Should we have people punch in and punch out their hours?  Well, is that people-positive?  Not really, right?  It assumes the worst.  It assumes that everybody’s a liar.  How do we actually get people to show up the way we expect them to show up?  A lot of that has to do with how we treat them.  That was the people-positive one.  I just saw so many different examples of that humanist agenda popping up.  

Then the complexity conscious one was this idea that there are many different contexts that we work in, in the world, the organisation as a context of people coming together is quite a complex one.  What I mean by that is, it’s not predictable, it’s not linear, it’s not causal.  It’s dispositional, it’s uncertain, it will surprise you.  It’s more akin to gardening or the weather or something that emerges over time that you can’t fix, that you can’t solve.  When we approach organisations with gap charts and linear change processes and values, posters, and coffee mugs, we’re treating the system like it’s a watch when it’s not, so this idea of complexity conscious was, organisations that realise that both the firm and the market are a little bit uncertain, and to a certain degree, unknowable.  The only way to proceed is with a very test-and-learn agile, inquisitor, emergent approach.  

That’s where you’d see the very aggressive examples of Facebook running 10,000 versions of Facebook at once, just to see what works, what happens when we try X, Y, and Z.  What I like about the two of them together is that when you hold them in contrast, if you did either one at the expense of the other, you would ultimately fail, or at least you would fail humanity.  You see examples of companies that are learning machines, but at the expense of their own employees, at the expense of their own customers in many cases.  

You see companies that are very humanist and extremely community-oriented and centric, but they can’t get anything done.  They’re not actually affecting change in culture, they’re not innovating, they’re not making anything really all that interesting, but they’re certainly very kind.  The trick is, like, how do you get those two to hold each other in balance, that we are learning as fast and as vibrantly as we can.  

That we’ve created this ecology of emergence and learning and facilitated exploration, and we’re not doing that to the point where we, the humans that are both doing and receiving the work, are somehow undermined.  

Andy: Why do you think this is so hard?  Listening to what you say, that you’re absolutely saying everything that I totally believed, and I’ve had that experience of reading the book of inspiration and envy, because it was very inspiring, but there were also lots of things that I’ve written and talked about myself, but you put it together really nicely.  Which is always a good sign, I was probably really narcissistic, but it was really brilliantly structured.  Then reading it, you think…

Aaron: What’s so hard about this?  

Andy: Yes, well, I mean there’s that legacy of the industrial revolution and the industrial way of thinking and thinking of companies as factories and machines.  It’s been a while since then.  

Aaron: A very long while.  

Andy: Yes, what’s your feeling of why this is so hard?  

Aaron: I think there are a few reasons.  I think one is that the degree to which a lot of this stuff is unconscious and not considered can’t be overstated.  The reality is, for most people that are not you and me, that are not sitting and thinking and meditating on the way we work, they’re busy.  They have back-to-back meetings and back-to-back projects and real job security on the line and other things going on, that mean the time to consider how we work at a very meta level, as we like to do, that’s a privilege, that’s the exception to the rule.  Most people are not thinking about the way they’re meeting.  

They’re not thinking about the way they’re making decisions.  They’re not thinking about the way they’re structuring teams.  They’re just doing it, just to keep heads above water and to keep things moving forward.  I totally empathise with that, actually.  I think the point here is really when we’re not conscious about what we’re doing, when we’re not choosing it, then it’s inherited.  I think that’s the number one issue, is just awareness of the fact that this is all made up and we can change it if we want to and is it serving us?  That is basically the idea.  

Then the other part of it is what you started to scratch at, which is there’s a very real ego and identity transition that’s part of this, part of considering and acknowledging some of this that is difficult, that is challenging, that requires bravery, as the book’s title alludes to.  Even something as simple as saying, the market and the world is uncertain and unpredictable.  

Therefore, I have to be humble in my expertise.  That’s hard.  People enjoy being an expert.  They enjoy saying, I know the answers, and this is the way.  They enjoy being the boss who reviews things and says yes and no.  There’s a lot of: Who am I if not the one who decides, if not the one who judges, if not the one who knows?  

Andy: It’s not really in the vocabulary of an MBA in project management and stuff either.  

Aaron: Not at all, yes.  I would actually say, yes, that’s the third thing, right, that not only do we not think about and not only do we have some evolution that we need to go through personally to manage it, but there’s also just a lot of systems and structures reinforcing it, from the economic operating system that we work in that demands short-term results and never-ending growth, to the educational system that requires compliance and looking for the one best way and the solution all the time.  There’s a lot of headwind just in terms of the apparatus around us that holds us to this way of working.  

Andy: It’s funny, I was thinking about this this morning, there’s a bit in the book, I think the company you label as Control Inc.  and you’re working with them for weeks or months and they’re saying, “When are we going to do the real work?” At some point, you go, “This is the real work, but we’re just talking to the teams.” I was thinking, it’s almost like people saying, “I’m too stressed to meditate.”

Aaron: Exactly.  

Andy: It’s a very bizarre thing.  We’re too busy working to think about how we work.  It’s quite remarkable when you think about it.  It’s just like Usain Bolt saying, “I’m too busy running to think about how I sprint.” It’s just crazy.  

Aaron: It’s a very human pattern.  It’s funny because the advice against it has come out over and over in different ways.  The old saying that was attributed to Lincoln’s time of: If I had five minutes to cut down a tree, I’d spend four minutes sharpening my axe.  That’s that same wisdom.  It’s the wisdom of the method matters, and the tools matter and the way matters more than just the activity.  Then my favourite comic from a little while ago, you know, these folks pushing a cart up the hill with square wheels and there’s someone offering a round wheel.  They’re like, “No, we don’t have time for that.” It’s a very human thing.  I do it too.

I think I would almost put it on the order of a cognitive bias, that when we’re really in it, when we’re really in the shit, we don’t want to pull out, we don’t want to look up.  We somehow think we have to press on.  That’s something to fight.  I think you fight it 30 minutes a week, one hour a week, right?  Just do the retrospective at the end of the week.  Take the moment at the end of the meeting to just ask, “What did you notice?  What can we do better?” I think finding those little pockets is a great way to start.  

Andy: Well, talking of ways of starting, one of things you earned the right to say the thing at the end because the OS canvas is a really good structure to which you share a lot of what’s clearly your war stories.  I just wanted to come to something here because we had talked a lot before about all the different structures and things.  Frameworks get talked about a lot in business, right?  We’ve got this innovation framework; we’ve got this framework and so on and so forth.  

The frameworks always seem to be to fail because they’re an obstruction of the messiness of the real thing.  This isn’t this, so tell me about how you arrived at this?  Apart from the fact that canvas is obviously a very popular thing to do, but there’s something different about this to just the framework.  It’s not that you could just execute this, and everything is going to be fine.  

Aaron: Right.  For starters, there are no answers in it.  We wanted to create a mirror more than a framework.  What we were looking for was, if you’re looking in the mirror, you’re reflecting, you’re noticing.  The thought was, where should we focus our attention when we reflect, when we notice?  Because it’s such a big field, right?  When people start to really think about how they work and how they organise, they’re like, oh, my god, there are a million places to start, where should we start?  What we did is, we collected the principles and practices of these many firms, I think close to 70 that we looked at for the book, and as we would look, we would say, “What is different about this company?  

What is unique that allows them to buck the trend of bureaucracy in some way, shape, or form?” When we found something, we would pin it to the wall, okay, here’s a practice, here’s a way of meeting, here’s a way of deciding.  Here’s a way of thinking about power.  Here’s a way of thinking about compensation.  As we pinned them to the wall, both virtually and physically, they started to coalesce around these spaces.  We realised, these spaces are the front, these are the areas that are most influx, in terms of the future of work.  They’re not comprehensive, they’re not exhaustive, they’re not every possible thing you have to figure out at work.  

They’re just the 12 spaces that we found when we looked at where are things really been shaken up.  It’s a mirror.  It’s 12 boxes that look at you and say, “Hey, what do you believe about authority?  What do you actually do?  What do you believe about workflow?  And what do you actually do?  What do you believe about mastery and learning and development?  What do you actually do?” Then once you can articulate that to yourself, then to say, “How’s that going for you?” It’s almost like a therapist.  

Andy: Yes, I was just about to say.  

Aaron: Just in the form of a framework.  Yes, how’s that going for you?  My wife’s dad used to say when she was little, “Does it hurt when you do that?  ‘Yes.’ Don’t do it that then.” It’s sort of is that.  In that way, it’s not a framework, it’s really just a vessel that wants to collect some consciousness and some awareness and help us be more deliberate about the way we work when we’re designing it or trying new things.  

Andy: I want to ask you something here because I’ve had several clients where I could imagine talking about this with them, I’d imagine you get this a lot, there are lots of nods, there’s usually some sort of shameful giggles and… yes, yes.  I’ve had also clients that have just looked through their calendars.  One of the big things they have problems with is focus.  We want to do this new thing.  Look, you need to clear your calendars for a week.  “Well, we can’t afford to do that.” It goes back to that, what we were just saying before.  A thing that creeps in is a sense of learned helplessness.  Where, we can’t do anything else.  

Aaron: For sure.  

Andy: I’m interested about how you tackle that.  

Aaron: Well, I think one of the reasons that I think a lot of this stuff, a lot of change, struggles, is it happens to people, even when we say that it doesn’t, it really kind of does.  It’s like, you’re going to learn these agile methods or we’re going to change this structure and you’re a part of that.  There’s a lot of things happening that are additional to what’s going on.  The first thing that I always like to start with is just for every team, what are the tensions that are holding them back from doing their best work in their own opinion, and wouldn’t they like to try changing that stuff?  

I just find that when people are working on the thing that’s driving them nuts, they find more time than when they’re working on the thing that is important for the organisation.  We just start with that; we start with what is present and alive for real people in their real teams.  If they want to start there, then that will help us build up a little bit of momentum and a little bit of belief frankly that something can happen, something can be done.  I think that’s definitely a part of it.  Then the other two parts of it are, a, if you’re doing this work effectively, it’s happening in the actual work.  

It’s not some other, yes, you might do an off-site here or there, you might take an hour here or there but most of this is in the meeting, in the discussion, in the moment, in the brainstorm, we’re going to do it differently.  To me, it doesn’t take away from the work, in many cases, it streamlines it.  It speeds it up.  You see that with teams that are in the early weeks and months of this work, they’re like “Wow, I’m getting time back.  It’s not that I’m losing time, we’re getting faster, we’re getting more effective.  

It just took a little bit of practice.” The first few tries are rough and then later on things get quite good.  It’s like practice and go slow to go fast kind of thing.  Then the last thing is, we always talk about start by stopping.  One of the best ways to get started to get rid of bureaucracy is actually to get rid of things, not to add things, right?  Get rid of that travel policy, get rid of that meeting, get rid of that structure, and just let it breathe for a minute before we do anything.  That feels really counterintuitive, but it’s obviously quite freeing and requires no additional commitments.  

Andy: It’s really true.  I think I might have said this in the previous podcast, as well, but I get often asked, what do we need to do to be more innovative.  Whenever I frame the question the other way around, well, what’s getting in the way of it happening spontaneously?  All the answers comes.  It’s quite remarkable.  We have too many meetings and we’re all in different offices and stuff.  The knowledge is all there, the pain is certainly there, I think.  

Aaron: For sure.  

Andy: I’ve got a question for you, you do allude to it in the book or answer it, actually, but I’ll ask it here, it’s how do you answer the question from the CEO or the senior stakeholder, or whoever’s employed you, let’s say, who says, “Okay, what’s the plan then, let’s see the plan, how’s this going to turn out?  How am I going to know this is going to work?  

Aaron: Yes, the plan question is infamous.  A couple of things happen there.  One, we try to zoom back and talk about what is knowable and what is unknowable.  What is the true nature of an organisation, right?  The nature of an organisation is everybody is not going through this at the same pace, at the same speed and the same steps.  What we’re looking for is not an end state, we’re not looking to be done implementing X, we’re looking for a continuous participatory change state.  We’re looking for the state of this organisation keeps getting better all by itself.  

That is a very different thing to try to strive for.  All we’re doing is really trying to create patterns.  We’re trying to poke the bear and see what happens.  Then if we like what happens, do more of that, and if we don’t like what happens, do less of that.  To me, I a liken it to gardening or cooking, or anything where you’re in dialogue with the subject matter.  We’re just going to be playing and if things are getting better, we’re succeeding, and we’ll keep playing.  Often, with folks that are looking for a plan, we’ll say, “Instead of plan, why don’t we just start a few experiments that are principled experiments where we have a very strong opinion about what might happen.

With tight timelines and safe-to-try structure and scale and learning metrics.” We’re know very quickly if we’re moving in the right direction.  Wouldn’t that be better than a giant chart and a 16-page plan that is ultimately a lie committed to paper.  For the ones who get that, we proceed.  Frankly, for the ones that are not ready to hear that, there’s plenty of other work to do, so we’re not really in the business of convincing anymore.  We really just like to start with where people are at.  

If where there are is, they need everything to have a plan, then they might need to do more work, thinking and reading and experiencing complexity before they’re ready to really do this.  Vice versa, maybe if we ask them to start with their own tension, they might be quite willing to launch an experiment or intervention to try to make some change.  We just poke at it from a few angles like that.  

Andy: There is that story in the book where the person says, “Yes, okay, but I can’t go back to my boss with that.  I need a plan.”

Aaron: Yes, sometimes you do go around and around and around.  That’s all right.  That’s a good time to stop.  

Andy: On Power of Ten, I talk about this idea of design and it’s not just design, really, but working at lots of different levels.  It’s very fractal in the sense that as you start working your way up.  You go, well, that this is nested inside this thin and it’s nested inside this thing.  That’s the nature of complexity, right?  They all work in an ecosystem and with each other.  One of the things I think that’s interesting and you talk about it, it’s really what the OS canvas is about is,

there are small things you can change within the system that actually starts to change the whole system.  My final question for you is, what one small thing, and it doesn’t have to be in business, it could be something else in life, do you think has either been so well-designed that it changed everything, or should be redesigned or rethought in order to have a massive change?  

Aaron: Well, the left-field answer is how e board airplanes.  How we board airplanes is, for the most part, with a few airline exceptions, complete hog-wash.  It flies in the face of the science.  It flies in the face of the human experience.  It is just bad all the way around.  

Andy: You’ve been flying a lot recently?

Aaron: Yes, I have.  Yes, obviously.  That one I think is probably my funny answer.  I think inside business, honestly, the thing that goes a long way is just focusing on a little bit more equal talk time.  You know?  Just really looking at who needs to step up and step back, so that voices are heard more equivalently.  It’s funny how simple that is, but what a difference it makes in terms of what we hear and how we listen and what kind of spaces are made and who’s included.  I think that’s one that I like to notice and point out when I see it.  

Andy: Yes, that’s a very good one.   It’s also so overdue.  

Aaron: Yes, very much so, a few centuries.  

Andy: Listen, I know you’ve got to go, I’d love to have you back on and talk about since you’ve written the book, what you’ve learned since or what you would like to put in or what would be an addendum to it?  What’s been the responses to it, as well?  

Aaron: Yes, part two, that will be good because we’re just starting to see the reactions and the results, and some new projects spun up on the back of it.  We’ll have really good learnings to probably share in the coming months.  

Andy: Brilliant.  Okay.  I’m going to hold you to that.  Aaron, thank you very much indeed.  

Aaron: Yes, likewise, talk soon.  

Andy: Thanks for listening to Power of Ten.  If you want to learn more about other shows on the This is HCD Network, visit:, where you’ll find Prod Pod with Adrian Tan, Ethno Pod with Dr.  John Curran, and Bringing Design Closer with Gerry Scullion.  You’ll also find the transcripts and links mentioned in the show and where you can also sign up to our newsletter, join our Slack channel to connect with other designers all around the world.  My name is Andy Polaine.  Thank you for listening and I’ll see you next time.  

End of Audio

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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Getting Started in Service Design
Looking to learn about what is involved in getting started in the world of Service Design? Look no further, a free video-based course to help introduce you to the world of service design.
Gerry Scullion
Gerry Scullion