The Democratic Enterprise: liberating your business with freedom, flexibility and commitment
The recent announcement from the MIT Sloan Management Review that Lynda Gratton, along with her co-author, Andrew Scott, were recipients of the Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize for their article on ‘The Corporate Implications of Longer Lives’ prompted me to revisit a book Gratton published back in 2004 entitled The Democratic Enterprise.* Since that book Gratton has gone on to publish numerous thought-provoking works, most recently The 100 Year Life with Scott. However, despite the book’s age (in our fast-moving world) and the fact that it was written before the financial crash, The Democratic Enterprise contains a rich and well-researched body of inspiring ideas that continue to resonate with me and that seem as relevant to organisations today as they were when it was first written**.
In outlining the motivations for undertaking the research and writing the book, the author begins with the statement, ‘For me the acid test is whether you would want your child to work for the company for which you are a member, or indeed for the company you currently lead.’ She cites the late Warren Bennis, academic and author who many regard as one of the pioneers of leadership studies, who wanted to see the creation of ‘delightful organisations’. For Gratton, applying the central tenets of democracy to how our organisations are run is one way of doing just that.
Democracy articulates the idea that people have voice, where they can participate and where they have the opportunity to flourish and thrive and to be the best that they can be: as Gratton notes ‘democracy does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the terms “people” and “rule”. Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them’. For Gratton, the democratic framework values autonomy of the individual, provides organisational variety and is aligned around a shared purpose – ideas that are critical today; to quote Niall Fitzgerald’s endorsement ‘…what truly matters in transforming businesses: people, purpose, and participation’.
The author overlays these democratic principles onto organisations and champions six key tenets that she believes will help realise delightful organisations, where both the organisation and the people within it flourish. Beginning with the need for adult-to-adult relationships between the organisation and the individual, the author goes on to outline the idea of people as investors in their organisations, actively deploying their human capital (rather than as an asset to be worked). The other tenets focus on supporting and realising diversity and inclusion and all the benefits that brings with it, and operating with the key democratic principles of fairness and equality of opportunity.
This comment piece hardly does the work justice, so rich and thoughtful are Gratton’s observations and evidence. She is also careful to outline the vision for the future workplace, which is grounded in pragmatism and everyday realities. Not least is this shown in the recognition and consideration Gratton gives to the accountabilities and obligations expected of all stakeholders. As she states ‘democracy implies the giving of authority to individuals to make choices within a context of obligations and accountabilities.’
As organisations face into the challenges of creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces, as they compete for attracting the people with the right skills, and adopt agile work practices in response to the disruptive and ever-changing environments we operate in, then there is much to commend this book as a must read for today.
* Thanks to Laura Harrison for recommending this book to me.
** Although as a commuter on Southern Rail I did smile when I read in the book’s preface Gratton’s recounting of the words of a senior manager at BT: ‘ Can you imagine in 15 years’ time trying to explain to a child that every morning lots of people used to get onto a train, have an appalling journey, and then pour out the other end? And at the end of the day they would all get on the same train and do that everyday? Can you imagine how lame that is going to sound?’