Towards A Sustainable, 21st Century Workplace

The idea of a workplace where employees maximize their potential and innovative freedom may sound romantic, but Forbes contributor Steven Denning argues that such an environment is not only practical, but sustainable.

Instead of relying on only exceptional employees, Denning cites a radical management methodology which instead allows competent employees to fully utilize their talents through a customer-centric interdependent triad of dynamic linking, customer delight, and constant measurement.

Dynamic Linking
“Dynamic linking” is the first piece of the puzzle in moving towards a sustainable 21st century workplace. In dynamic linking, employees work iteratively with direct exposure to customer feedback; in this way, they can continuously innovate with disciplined competence. This stands in stark contrast to traditional 20th century management philosophy, which espouses hierarchical bureaucracy that tolerates incompetence and stifles innovation.

How can innovation and disciplined execution coexist? Firstly, workers have maximum freedom to realize their talents while inside the iteration. Secondly, iterations are kept relatively short to ensure workers receive immediate feedback from customers. In this way, the customer becomes the boss, forcing employees to be consistently competent. Competence can take place in the form of removing waste, improving skillsets, or shuffling personnel.

Customer Delight
The second key towards a more progressive workplace is to focus on “delighting the customer” by continuously innovating. This is markedly different from setting “maximizing shareholder value” as a goal. Interestingly, organizations that focus on customer satisfaction make money as a result of their activities.

Denning quotes Apple founder Steve Jobs, who once said when the bottom line is the focus, the people at “the white hot center of the company’s daily life” are salespeople, accountants and money man. On the other hand, when the customer is the focus, the “center” becomes the engineers, designers, and other creatives. Product quality and value thus are the most important–and Apple’s remarkable success in recent years is solid proof of which approach is better.

Constant Measurement
Denning’s last element is to constantly and consistently measure customer delight. Despite how subjective it sounds, “customer delight” is a tangible, measurable concept for both B2C and business-to-business operations.

An interview with Advanced Technology Services (ATS) CEO Jeff Owens reveals his own company’s focus on delighting a customer in a B2B setting. Not only is customer focus part of ATS’ culture (from the CEO down to its blue collar workers), but is a fundamental aspect of their business growth model: customers must be so satisfied that they will recommend ATS to friends or colleagues unsolicited. By encouraging feedback and explaining its value to a customer, ATS has ensured not only measurement of customer delight but turned it into a powerful tool to continuously improve their business.

In the end, a sustainable 21st century workplace involves pivoting from old, hierarchical 20th century techniques towards more radical management methodologies that focus on the customer. Called “customer capitalism” by Roger Martin and “organizing for resilience” by Ranjay Gulati, the workplace of the future is available now.


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