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Creating organisational cultures for the age of ideas

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Creating modern organisational cultures

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

Many modern organisations are locked into a mindset – an organisational culture – that began with the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Britain and was fully developed during the Second Industrial Revolution in the US. The great success of these revolutions – creating modern business and generating huge wealth – makes it easy to believe that what worked as a way of managing great corporations in the early 1900s is still the best way to run an organisation in the twenty-first century. But times have changed.

My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, sets out three core, culture-related ideas.

  1. Many organisations have a culture that is still unconsciously modelled on the managerial, ‘Steam Engine’ mindset of the industrial era; a culture which is fundamentally unsuited to the modern workplace.
  2. There are a number of core Steam Engine behaviours which actively prevent or destroy the things that modern organisations know that they most need from their employees – engagement, commitment and creativity, amongst others.
  3. Addressing and changing these core Steam Engine behaviours – little by little and piece by piece – will in time achieve a radical transformation of the organisation, creating a working environment suited to the Age of Ideas and freeing up the energies of the organisation’s members.

Locked in an industrial mindset

The great corporations of the early twentieth century quickly adopted Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, which argued that a new class of executives – managers and planners – were needed to reveal the ‘scientific’ approach to any particular task, which would yield the one best way of performing that task. Taylor was unabashedly prepared to argue that most workers were, in his words, ‘too stupid’ to discern the ‘science’ of their activities. Even workers with considerable skills carrying out complex tasks were, in Taylor’s view, not the right people to deal with ‘the science’ of their work, since even if they had the capacity properly to plan the best approach to their work, this would distract them from the work itself.

What was needed was another other sort of being: the manager/planner. Out of this patronising worldview came the persistent modern model in which every worker must have a manager, and that managers are superior to workers. Whatever Taylor may have said about ‘friendly’, ‘harmonious’, and ‘intimate’ cooperation between managers and workers, the mould was cast: workers worked; managers and planners (needed in surprisingly large numbers) managed and planned.

When ‘the  one best way’ is imposed on people in this way by a rigid, status-laden hierarchy, it creates the kind of dehumanising, de-energising, stressful and unhappy working environments that are still far too common today. It is rare to come across any organization where aspects of these behaviours are not still clearly in place, with the all too visible result that people feel put upon rather than inspired, and what should be a genuine community working together to achieve the same end is turned into an unnatural environment where one class of employee is constantly assessing, appraising and judging the other class. This is particularly damaging in the knowledge economy: when people are employed for their ideas and for their unique human skills (such as emotional intelligence), we shouldn’t be surprised if treating them like machines whose outputs are monitored and rated leads to disenchanted employees.

Ten ‘Steam Engine’ behaviors

Of the ten Steam Engine behaviours that we identify in the book, the two most pernicious are those to do with control and measurement. Every manager wants to feel that they are ‘in control’, and measuring everything that moves helps to create an illusion of control. But it is an illusion: a moment’s reflection reveals that we can measure and control processes, but not people. Dealing with people – human beings – requires a human approach. It’s trickier, but it’s perfectly doable. The old ‘command and control’ model really is past its sell-by date.

If a new approach to control and measurement will take some adjusting to, the other dimensions that we discuss, such as innovation, communication, devolved leadership, networking, diversity and other aspects of organisational behaviour find a ready audience. ‘You’re right,’ most leaders agree: ‘we really do need to get better at those things.’

The behaviours that are most in need of change will differ (of course) from organisation to organisation; it is the precise mix of these various behaviors that creates each organisation’s individual culture.

Some leaders may be concerned that their corporate culture is not good at enabling fluent, honest communication or at encouraging colleagues to develop vibrant networks of internal and external contacts. Others may worry that there is insufficient genuine diversity in their organization or that their organizational culture fails to encourage innovation. As Edgar Schein argues in a popular post on, to identify which behaviors are having the worst effects it is a good idea to start with a business problem, and work back to the behaviours that are driving this.

Only you can judge what is most relevant to your own situation. Our argument is that all of these kinds of outmoded, Steam Engine behaviors interact with each other and that you will find (we believe) that when you address any one of these issues and begin to change the organisation’s behaviour in that one dimension, then the resultant new way of being quickly leads on to new perceptions and different ways of behaving in the other, related dimensions.

Setting out to ‘change the corporate culture’ with one almighty heave is difficult, daunting, and usually doomed to failure. Changing the organisation’s behaviour little by little, piece by piece, is achievable, and will slowly but surely bring about a real transformation, moving the organisation from an industrial mindset to one that is suited to the modern reality of our working lives.


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Is your organisation stuck in the Industrial Era?

Is your organisation stuck in the industrial era? Find out now by taking our quick, twenty-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis. The results that you will be given online on completing the survey are slightly light-hearted, but the issue is very serious.

Managers think; workers do

Back in the heady days of the Second Industrial Revolution, when the United States was busy applying the technologies developed in the first Industrial Revolution to create a burgeoning consumer economy, the principles of Frederick Wilmslow Taylor’s Scientific Management were seen as a blast of bracing fresh air; a glimpse of modernity.

In the bad old days, said Taylor, workers would muddle along, using their gumption and initiative, rules of thumb and accumulated wisdom. But this would not do. This was inefficient. A new breed of managers would be recruited to systematise what had previously been a woefully haphazard state of affairs.

As Taylor wrote in The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911:

The managers assume … the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae which are immensely helpful to the workmen in doing their daily work. In addition to developing a science in this way, the management take on … other types of duties which involve new and heavy burdens for themselves.

These new ‘rules, laws and formulae’ would, under Taylorism, not merely be ‘immensely helpful’ to the workers, they would come to rule the workers’ lives.

The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.

The workers, relieved of the ‘burden’ of all of the thinking that had previously been required of them, were now able to get on with the business of being as efficient as possible.

Monsters in our organisations’ collective unconscious

It is easy (and enjoyable) to parody Taylor, mainly because he is beyond parody. He genuinely believed in a rigid distinction between workers and management and that it was the job of managers – not workers – to think, analyse and plan.

It should be said that Taylor believed that workers should be rewarded for the greater productivity that resulted from the efficiencies of the new system and that his approach of breaking any activity down into its component parts – the basis for later ‘time and motion studies’ – is a useful way of analysing and streamlining any repetitive process.

The problem with Taylorism – and it is a very big problem – is that it crept into the psyche of the modern organisation back in the early twentieth century and has stayed there ever since, like an unresolved childhood trauma, creating inappropriate and damaging behaviours.

Most organisations unwittingly still behave as if manager’s think and plan and workers just ‘do’. While these organisations pay lip service to ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ this is, in fact, unwelcome or merely impractical: things are to be done in ‘the one best way’ because to do anything else risks ‘inefficiency’ (and because old-fashioned managers don’t want workers wasting their and everyone else’s time by running around having bright ideas).

In our new book, My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, Dr Mark Powell and I attempt to haul some of the monsters from the modern organisation’s collective unconscious out into the light of day. We argue that the modern organisation is like a steam engine that modern leaders keep trying to fix, when what is needed is a complete replacement. We explore deep-seated, knee-jerk management obsessions with control, measurement and efficiency, and the typical modern organisation’s woeful approach to such vital issues as communication, leadership and innovation.

We are all knowledge workers now

We are, in fact, all ‘knowledge workers’ now. If a task is literally mindless and repetitive, then it will and should be automated. What human beings bring to any task is, or should be, their ingenuity; their innate sociability; their willingness to rally to a cause, bouncing ideas off each other in a search for the best solution to the common problem.

But few organisations have cultures that genuinely encourage these uniquely human talents.The pull of old, steam engine, industrial-era habits is too strong. We categorise and control; appraise and retrain; dictate and confine; manage and demotivate.

Is your own organisation stuck in the industrial era?

Find out now by taking our quick, twenty-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis.

The results that you will be given on completing the survey are slightly light-hearted, but the issue is very serious.

Work needs to be fit for this century, not for the last.


Please  join the debate with #howsteamareyou and follow us on Twitter @MySteamEngine