Book Review: Brave New Work

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Brave New Work describes why the way we’ve done things for a century doesn’t work anymore. Put it on your short shelf of books that show us how we can do things better.

When Art Petty first recommended this book to me, I balked at the use of the term “operating system.” I’ve read too many books and articles whose authors use a computer analogy to suggest how human beings ought to work. Mostly, they write nonsense.

But Aaron Dignan uses “operating system” in the generic sense. Here’s a quote from the book:

“Operating systems are all around us. Take intersections. Two roads crossing present a deceptively simple challenge: how do we prevent cars from hitting one another, while maintaining the maximum flow of traffic”

Dignan follows that brief statement with an excellent description of an operating system. His description sets up the introduction of his two key ideas.

Dignan’s says the way we need to operate is both people-positive and complexity-conscious. He uses those terms throughout the book.

Too many organizations today operate as though people were interchangeable parts. So, what would a people-positive workplace look like? There are several places you can find the answer to that question. It’s there in books like It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. It’s there in organizations scattered around the world.

I came up in business at a time when things were relatively predictable. Five and 10-year strategic plans and budgets were common. It was easy to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t.

Those days are gone. We live in a complex world and we need to develop ways of dealing with that complexity. That’s what complexity consciousness is all about.

Dignan suggests that there are organizations out there that are people-positive and complexity-conscious. He says they are constantly reviewing their operating system and finding better ways to work. He calls them “evolutionary organizations.”

Dignan proposes a dynamic model for organizations. It’s not about thinking. It’s not about being. It is about doing.

Brave New Work is divided into two parts. Part 1 is about why we work the way we do. It’s a historic and analytical view of why organizations are structured the way they are. Another book that covers this is Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams. You may enjoy reading the two versions of how we got here. You’ll find some similarities and a few differences, and you’ll pick up more insight.

Part 2 is about the principles and practices of evolutionary organizations. Dignan describes companies that are already acting the way he expects effective organizations to act in the future.

Let me suggest two good companion reads. It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work is a good look at an organization that’s very much like the ones Dignan describes. David Burkus’s Under New Management is a review of what are today “cutting edge” practices in several organizations.

You will be tempted to take this book as something like a course in carpentry. It’s not. It’s a toolbox. You will have to decide which things to try. Then, you must try them and adapt them to your unique situation.

Gather several books with examples that you might want to try. Have different people in your organization read the books. Then discuss them. Pick one thing to try and do it. That’s the best way I know to get into the spirit of continually reviewing what you do and looking for ways to do better.

One more thing. This is an optimistic book. We know most of the things that are wrong with the way we do things today. We can see possibilities for improvement. But we don’t yet know what the dark side of those improvements might be. Every solution sows the seeds of the next problem. The solutions that you develop after reading this book will be no different.

In a Nutshell

Put Brave New Work on your short shelf of books that show us how we can do things better. It’s an excellent review of why today’s organizations work the way they do. It’s also a first-rate source of examples of things you may want to try.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.

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