Brave New Work, by Aaron Dignan

Hearing about the core protocols in our Heartbeat session yesterday reminded me about Aaron Dignan and his book, ‘Brave New Work’. The book itself has some really interesting ideas about how people should organise. And (of course) it has its own canvas: the OS Canvas.

There’s a lot on self-organisation, but it’s not simply about ‘wouldn’t the world be great if…’. He doesn’t shy away from the key questions of who’s in charge and how are we really going to get stuff done.

It’s about time I went back to the book for a reread (and finally pull those highlights into Roam!). So if anyone wants to read it, maybe we could get a conversation started about it.

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What is the TLDR; of the book?

The TL;DR is that Dignan has studied and worked with what he calls Evolutionary Organizations (as opposed to Legacy Organizations). These organizations seek to trust their people. And, he states, such teams can achieve their collective potential ‘through distributed authority, consent and agreements, so we don’t have to reply on positional leaders’.

He has things to say about ‘agility at scale’ (eg, ‘agility is a mindset, not a tool set. It’s a piece of the puzzle, not the whole thing. It is necessary but not sufficient’).

He makes a powerful argument for why legacy management systems are not fit for today’s landscape.

The key takeaway is that organizations should strive to be ‘People Positive and Complexity Conscious’ which he defines for each of the domains of the Operating System Canvas (see below).


Here are some of my notes from the first 25% of the book.

  • Part 1 - The Future of Work
    • He runs through the history from Taylorism onwards, including Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y behaviour and Edward Deci on Intrinsic Motivation (autonomy, competence and relatedness).
    • Case studies include WL Gore, Buurtzorg, FAVI (‘where on-time delivery isn’t a goal; it’s a societal expectation’)
    • Such cultures are ‘made coherent and free by “enabling constraints”—agreements that create freedom to use judgment and interaction in the vast majority of situations.’
      • He uses the example of roundabouts as being better for increasing traffic flow than a signal-controlled intersection. And gives examples of what this might look like.
      • ‘Our bureaucracies are no match for complexity. They can’t handle the surprises we face every day, and worse, they’ll never surprise us with an unexpected breakthrough.’
    • ‘These Evolutionary Organizations have found ways to achieve what conventional wisdom says is impossible. They make better decisions faster. They allocate resources dynamically. They form and disband teams fluidly. They innovate both product and process. They grow without losing the culture they love. They work fewer hours but get more done. They protect the planet but maintain outsized profitability. They create prosperity, not just for their shareholders but for employees, customers, and communities.’ (p.69)

Part 2 - The Operating System
- The OS Canvas covers 12 domains: purpose, authority, structure, strategy, resources, innovation, workflow, meetings, information, membership, mastery and compensation
- There are chapters on all these domains. And ends each chapter with questions. As well as stating an idea of what people positive and complexity conscious would mean in this area.

  • He encourages ‘bite-sized ideas to change your team for the better’. Examples:
    • Minimum viable policy and allowing people to take risks above the waterline (WL Gore)

I’ll be happy to share more as I go back through my highlights. I think many of the questions in the chapter summaries would be worth exploring.

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Yes, please! :smiley: