Half of the human workforce is expected to be replaced by software and robots in the next 20 years. And many corporate leaders welcome that as a chance to increase profits. Machines are more efficient; humans are complicated and difficult to manage.
Well, I want our organizations to remain human. In fact, I want them to become beautiful. Because as machines take our jobs and do them more efficiently, soon the only work left for us humans will be the kind of work that must be done beautifully rather than efficiently. To maintain our humanity in the this second Machine Age, we may have no other choice than to create beauty. Beauty is an elusive concept. For the writer Stendhal it was the promise of happiness. For me it's a goal by Lionel Messi. So bear with me as I am proposing four admittedly very subjective principles that you can use to build a beautiful organization.
First: do the unnecessary. A few months ago, Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO and founder of the yogurt company Chobani, made headlines when he decided to grant stock to all of his 2,000 employees. Some called it a PR stunt, others—a genuine act of giving back. But there is something else that was remarkable about it. It came completely out of the blue. There had been no market or stakeholder pressure, and employees were so surprised that they burst into tears when they heard the news. Actions like Ulukaya's are beautiful because they catch us off guard. They create something out of nothing because they're completely unnecessary.
I once worked at a company that was the result of a merger of a large IT outsourcing firm and a small design firm. We were merging 9,000 software engineers with 1,000 creative types. And to unify these immensely different cultures, we were going to launch a third, new brand. And the new brand color was going to be orange. And as we were going through the budget for the rollouts, we decided last minute to cut the purchase of 10,000 orange balloons, which we had meant to distribute to all staff worldwide. They just seemed unnecessary and cute in the end. I didn't know back then that our decision marked the beginning of the end—that these two organizations would never become one. And sure enough, the merger eventually failed. Now, was it because there weren't any orange balloons? No, of course not. But the kill-the-orange-balloons mentality permeated everything else. You might not always realize it, but when you cut the unnecessary, you cut everything. Leading with beauty means rising above what is merely necessary. So do not kill your orange balloons.
The second principle: create intimacy. Studies show that how we feel about our workplace very much depends on the relationships with our coworkers. And what are relationships other than a string of microinteractions? There are hundreds of these every day in our organizations that have the potential to distinguish a good life from a beautiful one. The marriage researcher John Gottman says that the secret of a healthy relationship is not the great gesture or the lofty promise, it's small moments of attachment. In other words, intimacy. In our networked organizations, we tout the strength of weak ties, but we underestimate the strength of strong ones. We forget the words of the writer Richard Bach who once said, "Intimacy—not connectedness—intimacy is the opposite of loneliness."
So how do we design for organizational intimacy? The humanitarian organization CARE wanted to launch a campaign on gender equality in villages in northern India. But it realized quickly that it had to have this conversation first with its own staff. So it invited all 36 team members and their partners to one of the Khajuraho Temples, known for their famous erotic sculptures. And there they openly discussed their personal relationships—their own experiences of gender equality with the coworkers and the partners. It was eye-opening for the participants. Not only did it allow them to relate to the communities they serve, it also broke down invisible barriers and created a lasting bond amongst themselves. Not a single team member quit in the next four years. So this is how you create intimacy. No masks...or lots of masks.
When Danone, the food company, wanted to translate its new company manifesto into product initiatives, it gathered the management team and 100 employees from across different departments, seniority levels and regions for a three-day strategy retreat. And it asked everybody to wear costumes for the entire meeting: wigs, crazy hats, feather boas, huge glasses and so on. And they left with concrete outcomes and full of enthusiasm. And when I asked the woman who had designed this experience why it worked, she simply said, "Never underestimate the power of a ridiculous wig." Because wigs erase hierarchy, and hierarchy kills intimacy—both ways, for the CEO and the intern. Wigs allow us to use the disguise of the false to show something true about ourselves. And that's not easy in our everyday work lives, because the relationship with our organizations is often like that of a married couple that has grown apart, suffered betrayals and disappointments, and is now desperate to be beautiful for one another once again. And for either of us the first step towards beauty involves a huge risk. The risk to be ugly.
So many organizations these days are keen on designing beautiful workplaces that look like anything but work: vacation resorts, coffee shops, playgrounds or college campuses... Based on the promises of positive psychology, we speak of play and gamification, and one start-up even says that when someone gets fired, they have graduated.
That kind of beautiful language only goes "skin deep, but ugly cuts clean to the bone," as the writer Dorothy Parker once put it. To be authentic is to be ugly. It doesn't mean that you can't have fun or you must give in to the vulgar or cynical, but it does mean that you speak the actual ugly truth. Like this manufacturer that wanted to transform one of its struggling business units. It identified, named and pinned on large boards all the issues—and there were hundreds of them—that had become obstacles to better performance. They put them on boards, moved them all into one room, which they called "the ugly room." The ugly became visible for everyone to see—it was celebrated. And the ugly room served as a mix of mirror exhibition and operating room—a biopsy on the living flesh to cut out all the bureaucracy.
The ugliest part of our body is our brain—literally and neurologically. Our brain renders ugly what is unfamiliar...modern art, atonal music, jazz, maybe—VR goggles for that matter—strange objects, sounds and people. But we've all been ugly once. We were a weird-looking baby, a new kid on the block, a foreigner. And we will be ugly again when we don't belong.
The Center for Political Beauty, an activist collective in Berlin, recently staged an extreme artistic intervention. With the permission of relatives, it exhumed the corpses of refugees who had drowned at Europe's borders, transported them all the way to Berlin, and then reburied them at the heart of the German capital. The idea was to allow them to reach their desired destination, if only after their death. Such acts of beautification may not be pretty, but they are much needed. Because things tend to get ugly when there's only one meaning, one truth, only answers and no questions. Beautiful organizations keep asking questions. They remain incomplete, which is the fourth and the last of the principles.
Recently I was in Paris, and a friend of mine took me to Nuit Debout, which stands for "up all night," the self-organized protest movement that had formed in response to the proposed labor laws in France. Every night, hundreds gathered at the Place de la Republique. Every night they set up a small, temporary village to deliberate their own vision of the French Republic. And at the core of this adhocracy was a general assembly where anybody could speak using a specially designed sign language. Like Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements, Nuit Debout was born in the face of crisis. It was messy—full of controversies and contradictions. But whether you agreed with the movement's goals or not, every gathering was a beautiful lesson in raw humanity. And how fitting that Paris—the city of ideals, the city of beauty—was it's stage. It reminds us that like great cities, the most beautiful organizations are ideas worth fighting for—even and especially when their outcome is uncertain. They are movements; they are always imperfect, never fully organized, so they avoid ever becoming banal. They have something but we don't know what it is. They remain mysterious; we can't take our eyes off them. We find them beautiful.
So to do the unnecessary, to create intimacy, to be ugly, to remain incomplete—these are not only the qualities of beautiful organizations, these are inherently human characteristics. And these are also the qualities of what we call home. And as we disrupt, and are disrupted, the least we can do is to ensure that we still feel at home in our organizations, and that we use our organizations to create that feeling for others.
Beauty can save the world when we embrace these principles and design for them. In the face of artificial intelligence and machine learning, we need a new radical humanism. We must acquire and promote a new aesthetic and sentimental education. Because if we don't, we might end up feeling like aliens in organizations and societies that are full of smart machines that have no appreciation whatsoever for the unnecessary, the intimate, the incomplete and definitely not for the ugly.