Book Summary: Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan

Quick Summary: The book, Brave New Work, is unusual in its approach to organizational change. The book offers suggestions instead of prescribing methods for change within companies.  It is up to you to embark on the transformation process.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

Brave New Work Book Summary


Are you letting your life’s work slip through your fingers?

Is your business stifled by outdated bureaucracy? Are hierarchical structures hindering your progress? Caught up in a never-ending cycle of meetings?

Most workers would feel the same way and could easily add to their list of complaints. This is why we need to make a change.

There might be a feeling of fear and impossibility. It’s a must, however, if you don’t want your company to perish on the global stage. Your company has to reinvent itself to survive.

Putting it another way, it means changing your organization’s operating system from an old legacy to a new evolutionary operating system that is more flexible, open, and human-centric.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions recommended in this book. It does not provide a definitive answer to your professional dilemma. Everyone and every organization is different. To change one must find one’s own path. Imagine this book as a subtle reminder to keep going in the right direction.

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Lesson 1: Traditional organizations are in trouble

To begin, let’s talk about sabotage.

During the height of World War Two, the CIA’s director ordered a special field manual for his agents. This manual included guidelines on how to destabilize communities and commerce. It all began with a simple idea: distribute the manual to citizens friendly to the Allied forces, and, according to the manual, wage a war of “simple sabotage.”

Near the end of the manual, there is a list of actions that interfere with organizations and production.

Making access to work resources difficult by using complex bureaucratic processes, never allowing shortcuts that could speed up a decision or process, and observing all regulations strictly.

Those who see this list from the old manual laugh when the author shows it to leaders. “People at work do that too!” is the general reaction.

It is now just another day at the office for what constituted sabotage in 1944.

Just to be clear. People are not trying to sabotage the project. It’s that organizations are structured so that following protocols amounts to sabotage.

Companies are suffering from at least three adverse effects as a result of this.

As one example, company lifespans are decreasing. Historically, companies on the S&P 500 could expect to stay there for 60 to 70 years. That has decreased to about ten years now.

Second, returns on assets are down as well. Return on assets refers to how much profit a company can generate with the assets it owns. The fact that it’s hard to fudge makes it a great metric for evaluating performance in all areas. However, from nearly 5 percent to just over 1 percent since 1965, US return on assets has declined.

The third trend is a leveling off of productivity growth. Despite enormous technological advancements, we are still unable to produce more stuff per hour than ten or twenty years ago.

An economist probably won’t be able to explain why companies seem to be struggling. Bureaucracy is the most obvious answer from those on the ground dealing with problems on a day-to-day basis.

Lesson 2: Businesses are hampered by organizational debt

Imagine you work in an auto parts factory. A hole appears in your right glove one day, while you are operating your machine. Your left glove is also wearing thin. “It’s about time to get a pair of new gloves,” you think. In 30 seconds, you’re back at your machine after dumping your gloves, walking to where the gloves are kept, and picking up the new pair.

What a dream world it would be if all workers lived in it.

Here’s a specific example. FAVI is an auto manufacturer. In contrast to most European auto part producers who have collapsed under Chinese competition, FAVI actually exports to China. But the company hasn’t always been so successful. It suffered from bureaucracy in the past.

Before the new CEO took over, workers couldn’t just grab a pair of gloves. The manager had to see her gloves to verify that they needed to be replaced and to give her permission to replace them. 

After that, she went to a cage where the gloves were kept, waited for someone to help her, handed the person in charge her slip, and collected her new gloves. She then returned to her manager to have her slips stamped so that she could return to her machine.

The whole bureaucratic process took around 30 minutes. What does a new pair of gloves cost? Five euros. How much does leaving a machine unattended cost? Five thousand euros.

This type of debt is referred to as organizational debt by the author. There are many processes, policies, and structures in an organization that no longer serve it; they may have made sense once, but not anymore.

Automatic responses to problems are often the cause of organizational debt. A mistake is made in our organization, and so we institute a new policy or procedure to prevent it from happening again. Someone set up a system at FAVI, for instance, to stop people from stealing gloves.

There is a problem with trying to achieve perfect order; ultimately, it leads to disorganization. These processes result in millions of self-defeating rules that cause businesses to fall over.

The desire to fix problems by imposing rules is very old – it goes back over a century. Understanding the origin of the habit is essential if we are to break it.

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Lesson 3: In legacy organizations, managers are expected to think for workers

A set of assumptions lies at the core of every organization. They drive everything the organization does. It is like an operating system for organizations.

Almost all companies have been using operating systems inherited from traditional organizations for more than a century. The Legacy OS is everything that we don’t notice like structures, norms, and practices. The managers. Finances. Review of performance. 

These things are so common that they are almost invisible. Due to the misconception that popularity equals quality, Legacy OS is seldom questioned, let alone rethought.

Legacy organizations – those powered by Legacy OS – date back more than a hundred years.

During that time, factories were not as efficient as they are now. Worker instructions were not standardized. Mechanics in the past used idiosyncratic techniques. New hires learn by doing, taking after their elders. There was an artisanal approach to production.

Meanwhile, they were often rewarded for working slowly. Each time they produced a part, machinists were paid a certain amount; if they produced too many parts, however, their employers would lower this rate. Workers thus limited productivity to prevent piece-rate cuts.

A man who liked to measure things charged into this den of untidiness and underproduction. He revolutionized the world of work by his name, Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Taylor was not concerned with the length of time it takes to produce a given part. Instead, he was interested in calculating how long it should take. Therefore, each step of the assembly process was measured. After that, a shocking experiment was conducted.

A raise was offered to workers. It came with a catch, though. Employees needed to follow his instructions exactly to receive the raise (between 15 and 30 percent). It was that simple: employee autonomy was sacrificed for higher pay. Legacy organizations were born.

In the decades that followed, Legacy OS became common sense – that managers ought to do the thinking and workers ought to do the working.

Lesson 4: Organizations are not complex systems

Does an automobile engine seem complicated or complex to you without too much thought? And what about a watch mechanism? Would you say it is complicated or complex? What about traffic or the weather? Would you say one is complicated and the other complex? Or both? This is starting to get complicated.

In most cases, the answers you gave were arbitrary. What’s the big deal? Both complicated and complex are synonyms, right? Here’s your chance to get a crash course in systems theory with a pencil and paper – or a notepad on your phone.

Whenever we refer to a system as complicated, we are referring to it as causal. The constituent parts of the system have causal relationships. A watch will cease to function if you remove a cog. If the cog is reinstalled (correctly), the machine will start working again. 

There is predictability in causal systems. A clock will not do anything utterly unexpected by removing a cog, like run backwards or play a Beethoven sonata. An automobile engine is no different.

A complex system is a dispositional system, such as traffic or the weather. It is possible to speculate about what they will do, but there is no way to be certain. Understanding them is key to making predictions. Learn their quirks and how they react to situations. There is no manual to follow.

Legacy OS has a fundamental flaw: it treats organizations like complicated systems. By assuming there are rules out there, it assumes that a scientific understanding of work can exist.

That’s not the case. When you put people together, you get a complex system. Complex systems present a problem that cannot be solved. They can only be managed.

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Lesson 5: An evolutionary organization should flow like a roundabout

If you were driving, which would you prefer to encounter: traffic signals or roundabouts?

People are more comfortable and familiar with traffic signals. Over 300,000 traffic signals exist in the United States alone. In contrast, roundabouts are rare, with about one per 1,118 intersections.

Traffic signals represent Legacy Organizations in our case. While popular, they aren’t the most effective, as we’ll see.

But there is another way – a better way of organizing. These companies we call Evolutionary Organizations.

Signals and roundabouts were designed to solve the same complex problem: traffic flow. Each of them optimizes traffic flow while minimizing car accidents. Even so, both systems are based on fundamentally different assumptions.

The assumption behind traffic signals is that people need to be told what to do. The red light means stop. The green light means go. In roundabouts, the opposite is true. Following the flow of traffic and yielding to cars already in the circle are two of the rules. Nevertheless, it is up to drivers to abide by these rules and maneuver through the intersection safely.

Considering the traffic signal’s popularity, you might think it’s far superior. However, roundabouts are more efficient on the whole.

Traffic delays go down by 89 percent; yearly maintenance goes down by $5,000 to $10,000; fatal collisions go down by 90 percent and injury collisions go down by 75 percent; and, on top of all that, they’re still operational when power goes out.

It’s only because they’re the norm that traffic signals persist. We’ve grown accustomed to them. They’re commonplace. Hence, we assume that they are also effective.

As with traffic-signal operating systems, Legacy Organizations are also common. The assumption is that people can’t be trusted. In both cases, people must be directed at all times. A red signal means stop. A green signal means go.

What would happen if we abandoned this system? Rather than dictating actions categorically, instead of imposing hierarchical structures, instead of mistrust and micromanagement, what if we designed an operating system that allowed people to work more freely and to use their own judgment to deal with complex challenges at work? The Evolutionary Organization is that.

Lesson 6: Evolutionary organizations emphasize complexity and people

It is more than “making your organization more roundabout-like”, when you try to shift from legacy practices to evolutionary ones.

You have to keep in mind two terms when moving your organization to a new operating system.

The first characteristic of evolutionary organizations is that they are complexity conscious. Besides recognising that business is a complex system, they also take into account global complexity in general, and human complexity in particular.

The second characteristic of evolutionary organizations is that they are people-oriented. They believe that workers can deal with this complexity if they are empowered in the workplace.

In what way do these two qualities manifest themselves? The results are similar to what David Marquet did when he assumed command of the underperforming USS Santa Fe. Prior to Marquet, the USS Santa Fe had a poorer performance than every other submarine in the fleet. However, under his command, the Santa Fe became the best submarine in the fleet.

An unorthodox approach led to that ascent. Marquet conveyed his vision for the vessel rather than issuing instructions. The crew was initially baffled by the commanding officer’s response to their requests for orders, which was invariably, “What are you planning?” However, with time, the crew began to think for themselves and assume responsibility for running the submarine.

As a result, they were able to experiment and learn in a supervised environment. By decentralizing control, he enabled his team to come up with quick and effective solutions to complex problems. His team also took ownership of their work.

Shortly put, he was a People Positive and Complexity Conscious person.

If this advice doesn’t seem any more helpful than telling your company to model itself after a roundabout, well, I apologize – but yes, that’s somewhat intentional. It will never be possible to go from legacy to evolutionary in one way. We are escaping the dogmatism of Legacy OSes. No single approach will work everywhere. Companies must chart their own course.

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Lesson 7: Take a fresh look at structure and purpose

The evolution of organizations has been successful in a few domains. In the previous chapter, Marquet, the submarine captain, decided to change the way he handled authority. His response surprised everyone.

How would you feel if you showed up for work one day, and your boss said to you, “Hey, you should write your own job description and set your own salary.”?

A large tomato processor in the world, Morning Star Company, does just that. Morning Star’s 400 employees create a document describing their responsibilities to each other every year. The document is then critiqued by colleagues, offering suggestions for improvement. Instead of top-down directives, community suggestions are made.

Morning Star allows you to set your own salary, but it is subject to peer review as well. Morning Star, which generates approximately $700 million in revenue annually and has been growing consistently for 20 years, has been very successful using this system.

Therefore, Morning Star successfully rethought the structure domain.

Rethinking structure in another way is shown here. There are about 14,000 nurses employed by Buurtzorg despite having a core team of about 50. What is the secret to managing 14,000 nurses? There is none.

All 14,000 nurses were divided into 12-person teams which mostly managed themselves, taking care of scheduling as well as recruiting. In essence, Bürtzorg is a collective of small businesses united in a common goal: to provide quality and personal care for the elderly.

Now let’s talk about purpose. In the first instance, your organization should serve a eudaemonic purpose, that is, to alleviate human suffering and aid human flourishing.

Tesla, for example, describes its mission as “accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” While that sounds inspiring and eudaemonic, it does have a problem. Basically, it’s vague. An engineer would have difficulty translating it into concrete tasks.

Keeping Facebook’s purpose aspirational and actionable is a good system. The organization looks at where it wants to be in 30 years, and then asks what it can do in the next six months to move closer to that distant goal. With this approach, you can both zoom in on the present and frame the big picture at the same time.

Lesson 8: Rethink the meeting and membership domains

During one long and productive meeting, the author’s team decided to discontinue its monthly strategy review. The team held back the truth from each other for far too long; no one liked the strategy review, much less got any value from it. Can you imagine how much these boring, pointless meetings cost? About $3 million annually.

About half of the meetings that employees attend are wasted time – and the average employee attends 62 per month. But you should also pay attention to how meetings are conducted. These departments act as a kind of microcosm, a miniature version of the whole organization.

The meeting moratorium may prove helpful for eliminating unnecessary meetings and introducing superior meeting practices. All meetings should be cancelled for two weeks. It might seem reckless or even impossible.

The author, however, found it effective. The members of a leadership team he once worked with spent 45 hours a week in meetings. Upon resuming meetings after a two-week hiatus, they achieved what they had done previously in 45 hours in 18 hours.

The two weeks you have left after canceling all your meetings are for you to focus on the pain points. What is missing? What needs to be discussed?

Reintroducing meetings is now possible. However, like an organization, meetings should be structured around a clear purpose. Otherwise, it’s not necessary.

The membership domain is also crucial. Which members are in and which are out? Which members are welcome in your organization?

You can find out by looking at hiring practices. A company’s mission and culture should be aligned with the personality and passions of a new employee when onboarding them.

However, don’t hire solely based on culture fit. Despite being a good predictor of success at the start of a business, it can lead to underperformance in the long run. Therefore, it’s better to hire employees who will contribute to your organization’s culture rather than simply fit in.

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Lesson 9: Change isn’t an event, it’s a process

What does change mean? It is common for leaders to see change as a journey – a trip from A to B. Leaders have a roadmap with milestones and a clearly defined goal. That metaphor, however, is misleading.

It’s a myth that change is a journey: change is a sequence. One leg leads to another. However, change is not a linear process. You can’t follow a map.

Take a mug of coffee and pour milk into it. Almost immediately, the colors of the two liquids change, from black to brown. Rather than well-executed plans, change should look more like this – like a complete assimilation.

To make such a change, however, you must change the way you change. Stop imposing change from the top. No CEOs dictating what values the firm should adhere to. In a hierarchical, bureaucratic forge, you can’t change a bureaucratic hierarchy.

What changes should you make? You need to make changes that are continuous and participative.

It is possible to ensure continuous change through the use of a technique called looping.

Identifying tensions, proposing practices, and conducting experiments are the three stages arranged in a loop.

Loops may be small or large, fast or slow, vast or small. As an example, let’s consider a loop that occurs within a team.

A check-in at the start of every meeting can resolve a tension that “only the loudest voices are heard.” Let’s say the team notices a tension where “only the loudest voices are heard.” You can ask the team, “How do colors reflect your mood?”

Now give it a try! Let’s go around in a circle and see how everyone responds. Is it bringing everyone together and giving their voices space to be heard? Try experimenting until the tension subsides. If not, keep proposing practices and conducting experiments.

The tensions in the world cannot all be listed, and a technique that works for one team or organization might not work for another. Complex systems require complex solutions. By keeping this in mind, and empowering your colleagues and teammates to do the same, you will be well on your way to doing the best work of your life.

Final Summary

Organizations need to adapt to modern times. Legacy OS, an operating system inherited from factories of the 19th century, runs most of them. It is believed that more control will lead to better results. 

In order to reduce control, organizations would be better modeled after roundabouts rather than traffic signals. Following this approach may soon make your company an Evolutionary Organization. The first step is to decide what domain to attack first.

About The Author

Aaron Dignan is the founder and CEO of The Ready, a coaching and organizational design company with clients such as Microsoft, Airbnb, and Johnson & Johnson. 

In addition, he has served on the advisory boards of PepsiCo, American Express, and GE. 

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