Book Review: Brave New Work

Been a while since I’ve written one of these. Not because I haven’t read any books recently (that’s rather unlikely), but because not many of them were related to the topic of this publication in their entirety. 

Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan 

As we learned at the beginning, all models are wrong, but some are useful. So let me say this before we depart: this book is not perfect. Mistakes were made. Perhaps I portrayed an organization differently from how you (or the organization) would. Perhaps I failed to describe a concept or distinction as well as another expert might. It’s even possible that something big is missing — something that will reveal itself to us in years to come and irrevocably transform how we organize. I can live with that. Because what I’ve presented here is enough. It’s enough to stroke that disenchantment that you feel. That this can’t be our best. That we’re capable of more. It’s enough to get started. Enough to go on. And that’s all that matters. Progress over perfection. Courage over caution. This isn’t business as usual. This is brave new work. 

I chose to start with a quote from the last page in Aaron’s book because it beautifully frames the right mindset for reading the book, as well as my review below. 

In my mind, Aaron’s book is the evolution of a blog post he wrote almost three years ago, introducing the OS Canvas — a framework for describing how progressive organizations (referred to in the book as “evolutionary organizations”) operate differently than legacy/traditional organizations. 

The three main parts of the book cover the history of work (how we ended up working in the way we are working today), the Operating System itself, and how to go about changing the operating system in an existing org. 

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its accessibility  — for a general business reader, who’s curious to learn more about the “future of work” it’s a great primer and a jumping off point to more advanced, nuanced and dense content in this domain. For the sake of comparison, it is more easily read than “Reinventing Organizations”, for example. And I’ll go a little deeper on the comparison between the two later on. 

Part 1: The Future of Work

The first part paints a very clear narrative of how we got to where we are today, giving a bit of a history lesson on how the current paradigms of work developed through the 20th century, describing the existential business risk that they are leading to today, and outlining a path forward based on two high-level principles: “People Positive” and “Complexity Conscious” both resonate strongly with me. 

My only qualm with this section is that the abbreviated history of work paints a more linear arc than what I’ve personally found it to be. We always start with Taylor, and it’s great to see McGregor’s work mentioned. But by skipping Lewin, Trist, and Emery, the paradoxical nature of the current state of work is being missed out on. Some of the progressive practices of evolutionary organizations are based on insights discovered in the 50s and 60s. What happened over the last 60–70 years that these insights are still not common knowledge??? For a more comprehensive overview of the history of work, I highly recommend Marvin Weisbord’s “Productive Workplaces”. 

Part 2: The Operating System

The second part lays out the Operating System consisting of the following pieces: 

  • Purpose — How we orient and steer?
  • Authority — How we share power and make decisions?
  • Structure — How we organize and team?
  • Strategy — How we plan and prioritize?
  • 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?

It’s interesting to note the evolution from 3-ish years ago: from 9 elements to 12, by splitting “strategy & innovation”, splitting “people, development & motivation” into “membership” and “mastery”, and adding “compensation”. 

Each element is covered using: 

  • Short introduction
  • List of more abstract/conceptual “thought starters” 
  • A few concrete practices capturing the element “in action”
  • Discussing how change in that element looks like
  • Reflection questions
  • Descriptions of how the key principles of “people positive” and “complexity conscious” apply in that particular context. 

I particularly liked that last section. The practices are only valuable if you understand and buy into the underlying principles otherwise, you end up with the “theater phenomena” where teams are going through the motions of new practices, but capturing very little of the value that they’re supposed to unlock. 

Taking a step back for a bit, my perspective on the OS concept remains unchanged — Having a comparative taxonomy for the way organizations operate is invaluable in moving the conversation about the future of work forward. Organizations are complex systems and without the right language to describe them and their behavior it’ll be hard to make progress. At the same time, the current version of the OS still leaves much to be desired. Some of the elements still seem a bit odd to me (should compensation be its own element, or just a specific use-case of resource allocation?), and the different elements are treated in the book rather inconsistently. In some case, like “authority”, rather comprehensive practices are offered. In others, the practices are rather anecdotal or piecemeal. What the OS lacks the most is a way to capture the interactions between the elements, which are a complex system in and of themselves. A good example can be the relationship between decomposed dynamic roles, and compensation. 

Part 3: The Change

Lastly, the third part of the book covers the theory of change in a complex system. This is perhaps where Brave New Work innovates the most. Most books tend to focus on either the What? (future state) or the How? (how to get there) but hardly ever on both. And most “future of work” books that I’ve read tended to skew more towards the What?, leaving the How? completely unanswered. Here Aaron introduces the concept of Continuous Participatory Change and six patterns that support it and are worth reinforcing: 

  • Commitment: When those in power and influence commit to moving beyond bureaucracy.
  • Boundaries: When a liminal space is created and protected.
  • Priming: When the invitation to think and work differently is offered.
  • Looping: When change is decentralized and self-management begins.
  • Criticality: When the system has tipped and there’s no going back.
  • Continuity: When continuous participatory change is a way of life, and the organization is contributing to the broader community of practice. 

And finally, he discusses the importance of psychological safety, the role of the leader in creating and holding space, key principles of change, and how scaling change might look like. 

To wrap up Aaron’s closing words capture my overall take on Brave New Work quite well: 

this book is not perfect… [but it] is enough. …It’s enough to get started. Enough to go on. And that’s all that matters. Progress over perfection. Courage over caution.

Book Review: Brave New Work

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